Honey bees are absolutely fascinating creatures.
The honey bee life cycle is pretty complex. Each stage of the honey bee life cycle has its own very important purpose for the individual bee as well as the hive.
The honey bee life cycle brings each bee from an egg to a fully grown adult bee. But how long do bees live?
Learn about each part of the honey bee life cycle, how long bees live, and so much more about these incredible insects.
The Honey Bee Life Cycle
Every honey bee in a hive will go through the same four life phases: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The life expectancy of a honey bee depends on several factors.
The most numerous individuals in the colony are female worker bees, who are responsible for almost every function that goes on in the hive and beyond. Aside from worker bees, a hive will also contain drones, male bees, and a single queen.
The honey bee life cycle is different for each of these insects. The type of bee is the first clue to honey bee life expectancy.
How it All Bee-gins: The Worker Bee Life Cycle
Every worker bee’s life cycle starts with a single tiny egg laid by the queen of the colony, who is capable of laying between 2,000 and 3,000 eggs every day. Yes, you read that right! These little eggs are even smaller than a grain of rice.
The eggs laid by the queen are fertilized by male bees, or drones, from other colonies and contain the genetic material of that drone and the queen. Female worker bees are able to lay eggs too, but they won’t be fertilized and can only become drones.
Each egg the queen lays will land standing upright in the center of the cell. By the third day, the egg will tip over and lean against the wall of its cell.
An area of the hive where there are eggs, larvae, or pupae in the cells is referred to as “brood.” These cells are generally grouped together, and a sign of a healthy and productive queen is brood without very many empty cells mixed in.
The Larval Stage of the Worker Bee Life Cycle
The egg hatches into a larva after the third day.
Similar in appearance to a white grub, the larva has no legs or wings yet and is completely blind at this point in the honey bee life cycle.
Larvae are fed by other members of the hive as they grow. Each larva is visited many times a day to make sure they have everything they need. Worker bees will continuously fill all available space in each cell with food to keep the larvae fed.
All bee larvae are initially fed the same thing for the first three to four days, receiving all their nutrition from a substance called “jelly.” This jelly is made by worker bees just for developing bee larvae. Beyond those first few days, all worker brood is fed regular worker jelly, which ensures they will develop correctly.
As the larvae get older, they will be visited more frequently by the workers because they need more and more food. To accommodate their steadily increasing size, larvae will molt, or shed their outer skin, several times during this stage.
After six days have passed, adult worker bees will “cap” the cell with wax so the bee can finish developing inside.
Pupating in the Honey Bee Life Cycle
Once a cell becomes capped brood, it will be flat and sealed with an orange-brown color. Now that the cell is sealed up, the larva inside becomes a pupa.
From inside the cell, the bee will finish growing and developing until she’s ready to emerge fully grown. Within the cell, the pupa will spin a cocoon around herself. This is when she will develop her wings, eyes, legs, abdomen, and thorax until she finally looks like the honey bees we all recognize.
Somewhere between 18 and 22 days later, once the bee has fully grown, she will chew the capping off her cell and climb out ready to work.
A Fully Grown Honey Bee
When a new bee is born, she will be covered in fluffy blond hairs. You can always spot these ladies by their “newborn” appearance.
Once a worker bee comes out of her cell, she begins to participate in keeping the colony healthy and running smoothly.
Worker bees earn their title because they take care of just about everything in the hive. Throughout her lifetime, every single worker bee will have a different job. They’re extremely organized in how they operate, making sure nothing is missed.
Adult worker bees can live anywhere from six weeks to six months, depending on the time of year.
Honey Bee Life Expectancy in Winter vs. Summer
The time of year in which a bee is born can determine how long she might live for.
Summer bees can live for six to seven weeks. Bees born in the summer tend to have shorter life spans because they’re doing a lot of physical work both inside and outside the hive. The queen is constantly laying more eggs, so they don’t need to live a long time to keep the population of the colony up.
Winter bees can live as long as four to six months. Bees born going into winter will hopefully survive long enough to carry the colony through until spring. They don’t leave the hive as often and will mainly stay inside keeping everyone fed, warm, and clean.
The queen doesn’t lay eggs during the winter, so winter bees won’t have brood to take care of. They will only need to go outside on the occasional warm, sunny day for cleansing flights or to forage for what little resources may be around.
What Keeps Bees So Busy?
As adult bees, workers progress through different tasks in the hive.
You can often get an idea of how old a bee is if you can determine what job she’s currently performing. This is known as “age polyethism.”
Bees function this way in order to operate as a “superorganism,” almost like a single animal made from thousands of individuals. Everything individual bees do is in the best interests of the entire colony.
Jobs for New-Bees
The moment a new worker bee emerges from her cell, she gets right to work.
Her very first job will be to clean out her own cell so it’s ready to be used again for new brood, pollen, or nectar.
Once she’s finished, which can take up to two days, she will become a nurse bee. Nurse bees care for the eggs and larvae in the hive, just like they were cared for while they were still in brood cells.
These nurse bees keep the growing bees well-fed and monitor them closely for any potential issues. If they discover any problematic larvae, such as bees with inbred genetics or disease, they’ll remove them from the hive. They also groom them regularly for hygienic purposes.
Once larvae are ready to pupate, nurse bees will begin capping brood. Nurse bees are also responsible for tending to the queen, constantly grooming and feeding her at all times. The queen spends most of her time in parts of the hive that contain brood, so it’s easy for nurse bees to take care of her.
Worker bees will remain in the nursery usually until day 11, at which point they will start to take on new tasks.
Teenage Bee Responsibilities
Now that she’s completed her time in the nursery, a worker bee will progress through many other jobs. Each of these jobs are crucial for keeping the colony running like a well-oiled machine.
Among her numerous responsibilities is building all the comb. Worker bees do this by secreting tiny flakes of beeswax, then carefully forming them into perfect hexagonal cells.
At this stage, worker bees will also receive nectar and pollen from foragers to pack it away in storage. Passing nectar from one worker to another helps lower the moisture content before it reaches a cell. Once there, the workers will use their wings to continuously fan the open cells of nectar if they still contain too much moisture.
When the nectar is ready, and the cells are full, workers will cap each one. This entire process of nectar mixing with the digestive enzymes of foragers and workers, dropping in moisture content, and being sealed up is how nectar becomes honey.
At this point in the honey bee life cycle, bees also keep the hive ventilated and regulate its temperature. Colony hygiene is essential, so these workers will constantly clean out debris, dead bees, or unwanted pests.
No hive is safe without dedicated guard bees, and this is another job for teenage worker bees. They will keep a close watch on any potential threats, scaring them away as needed.
These are usually the bees who approach you during hive inspections, and they’re likely the ones who will sting if provoked. While using her stinger will ultimately mean the end of her life, bees are more concerned with the colony as a whole than their individual lives. Her sacrifice is worth it if it means the rest of her sisters are protected.
Worker bees will cycle through all of these responsibilities until around day 20.
Work Doesn’t End for a Mature Bee
The last job for any worker bee is a forager. These are the bees you see out and about buzzing in and out of flowers.
This is very important because it’s how bees acquire the nectar, pollen, and water they need to live.
From after day 20 onward, until she dies, a worker bee will go back and forth between her hive and nearby flowers. Foragers can fly up to five miles from their hive and will visit thousands of flowers in a single day.
When a forager finds a good spot, she’ll communicate the location to her sisters upong returning to the hive. She does this with a special dance to let them know the direction and distance to find those flowers. This is known as the “waggle dance” due to the way she wiggles her body back and forth.
Foragers will visit only one type of flower at a time so that they can keep pollen organized. This is also how the vast majority of flowering plants reproduce, and is known as cross-pollination.
Depending on what the colony’s needs are and what is available, foragers will be gathering nectar and pollen.
They will suck up nectar to be stored in the first chamber of their stomachs. It then mixes with digestive enzymes, which is part of what turns nectar into honey.
When gathering pollen, foragers will pack the powder onto their back legs to carry it with them. It’s able to stick because of static electricity generated by the small hairs on their legs.
Upon returning to the hive, foragers will pass the pollen and nectar they’ve collected to younger bees to be stored. On average, each worker bee only makes about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. That means to get a single full teaspoon, it takes 12 worker bees their entire lives to make it!
Foragers will fly until they are too worn out to continue and eventually die. You can often tell a bee is older if her wings look ragged and her back is shiny, having lost the soft yellow fuzz she once had.
Honey Bee Life Cycles of Different Hive Members
While worker bees make up the vast majority of any colony’s population, they have other hive mates with different honey bee life cycles.
Male bees, or drones, and the queen bee go through the same basic process with a few important differences.
Drone Bee Life Cycle
Drone eggs are unfertilized and only carry the DNA of the female bee who lays them.
Worker bees can lay drone eggs but usually don’t as long as a queen is present in the hive. Drone brood has a larger appearance because they are bigger and fatter than worker bees. The cells can be wider or have a rounded cap to accommodate their size as they pupate.
The larvae are fed special drone jelly. Drones take the longest to develop fully, and they will emerge after 24 days.
Once a drone emerges, he will just hang out and be fed by workers–that’s pretty much it! Drones don’t have stingers and they don’t gather resources. The only time they actually do anything is when they leave the hive and find a drone congregation area.
This is a predetermined place where drones and queens will meet up to mate. Queens typically try to avoid mating with drones from their own colony. The mating process is fatal for drones, and they’re lucky if they make it back to the hive before they expire.
Drones live 55 days on average but can sometimes live up to 90 days. They will either die of old age, die just after mating, or be evicted from the hive as winter approaches. Since they just use up resources without really contributing anything, workers will kick them out to conserve winter stores.
Queen Bee Life Cycle
A queen bee begins the life cycle just like any other worker bee.
If the hive needs a new queen, either because their queen died or isn’t performing well enough and needs to be superseded, the workers will create one. As long as workers have fertilized eggs available, they will select a few to make into queens.
Once it’s determined that a new queen needs to be made and the eggs have been chosen, workers will build a special queen cell. This cell hangs downward from the comb and looks a bit like a peanut. The queen has a much longer body than a regular worker, so she can’t grow inside a regular brood cell.
When the queen egg hatches into a larva, she will be fed royal jelly beginning on the third or fourth day. Royal jelly is a special substance nurse bees produce in glands in their heads and salivary glands in their mouths. This is what turns a regular worker larva into a queen larva because it has a specific composition that’s different from worker or drone jelly.
Queens pupate for the shortest amount of time of any colony member. On the sixteenth day, a developed queen will chew her way out of her cell. She will also usually seek out any other queen cells that are still capped to eliminate any potential competition.
Once a queen emerges, workers will immediately begin attending to her every need. She is constantly being fed and groomed. Until she is able to go out on her mating flight, she is considered a virgin queen and isn’t able to lay worker eggs.
When she’s ready and the time is right, she will head out on her mating flight. Queens will only do this once in their lives and have enough genetic material for all of their eggs. She will find a drone congregation area using pheromones and mate with several different drones for genetic diversity.
Mating flights can be dangerous, so it’s possible something will happen to her and she won’t return. If she does return mated, she will begin laying thousands of fertilized eggs daily to grow the colony population.
The queen’s pheromones communicate her needs and the needs of the hive to the workers.
A strong queen bee’s life expectancy will usually be up to three years, with some queens living as long as five years. They become less productive as they age, and her time is up when her colony or beekeeper decides she needs to be replaced.
The Amazing Life Cycle of the Honey Bee
There are so many interesting things to learn from the honey bee life cycle.
These amazing creatures may be small, but they’re incredibly complex and very organized. This makes them capable of accomplishing quite a bit!
The more we know about bees, the more we can protect these essential pollinators. Understanding the honey bee life cycle is important for farmers, gardeners, and of course, beekeepers. It’s also helpful for concerned citizens who want to be mindful of their impact on the environment.
The honey bee life cycle is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re interested in learning even more about honey bees, we have all the information you need!
- About the Author
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Hope Schwartz-Leeper is an avid reader, writer, and lover of all things nature with degrees in English and Philosophy.
Born and raised in the Northeast, Hope has always had an affinity for spending time outside. Growing up and attending college in New York, then living on Cape Cod and finally settling in Rhode Island has given her plenty of experience with the climate and environment of these areas.
She loves growing her own food and plants and is always trying to grow something new. She’s hoping her apple trees will one day bear fruit, but for now she’s excited about anything that comes from the garden.