Bee Life Stages

David M. Stone, Teaching Associate, University Laboratory High School, Urbana, IL, U.S.A.

Typical of the most advanced insects, bees exhibit complete development or complete metamorphosis. This means that the young and the adults look very different and the diet of the young and the adults typically differ, preventingthe parents from competing with their offspring for resources. The life stages are egg, larva, pupa and adult. Development from egg to new worker typically takes two (Tales From the Hive, 2000) to three weeks (Bishop, 2005).

The eggs are described as having an appearance similar to sausage-shaped poppy seeds. Each egg has a small opening at the broad end of the egg, the micropyle, that allows for passage of sperm. Hatching takes place three days after egg laying (Jean-Prost, 1994).

The larval stage lasts eight to nine days. Upon hatching, the larva is almost microscopic, resembling a small, white, curved, segmented worm lacking legs and eyes. For the first two days, all larvae are fed a diet of royal jelly. Beginning the third day, worker larvae are fed honey, pollen and water, while the larvae destined to become queens continue to receive royal jelly throughout their larval lives. Regardless of whether the larva is male or female, it molts five times during its larval stage (Jean-Prost, 1994).

Workers caring for larvae. Photo by Zach Huang.

Care of the larvae is constant. Each larva receives an estimated 10,000 meals during this stage. Larval weight increases 5 1/2x during the first day, 1500x in six days (Tales From the Hive, 2000).

Larval stage durations vary:
5.5 days for queens (fertile females),
6 days for workers (sterile females), and
6.5 days for drones (fertile males) (Jean-Prost, 1994).

The pupal stage is a stage of massive reorganization of tissues. Organs undergo a complete reorganization, while body changes from the wormlike larval body shape to the adult body shape with three distinct body regions. Pupation periods vary: queens require up to 7.5 days, drones require14.5 days, while workers require 12 days (Jean-Prost, 1994).

Queen and worker pupae. Note the larger size of the queen pupa. Photo by Zach Huang.

Adult bees are either workers (sterile females), queens (fertile females), or drones (fertile males). A typical honeybee colony consists of 50,000-60,000 sterile workers, 500 to 1000 drones (fertile males) and one queen, the only fertile female in the colony and mother of the entire population of the hive (Bishop, 2005).

Worker (left), drone (middle) and mature queen (right). Photo by Zach Huang.

Workers provide virtually all of the efforts required to maintain function within a hive. During the latter part of their life, each will travel up to two miles in search of pollen, nectar and water. Each worker typically goes on ten food gathering journeys per day, each lasting approximately one hour. This heavy workload takes its toll; each worker lives for about a month prior to wearing out (Tales From the Hive, 2000).

Immediately after emerging from its pupal cocoon within one of the many brood cells, it immediately goes to work. During the first four days of its adult life, each worker is cleaned and fed by the other bees while its body hardens and it begins to produce substances in various glands. Activities during the next seventeen days include cleaning, feeding larvae, manipulating wax, processing honey, guard duty and air conditioning the hive by fanning. Any of these activities can be done at any time based on the needs of the colony.

Workers caring for a queen larva within its queen cell. Photo by Zach Huang.

On day 21 the worker leaves the hive, and works for another 20 days, bringing in pollen, nectar and water before taking its final flight away from the hive and dying (Hooper, 1976).

Pollen, a plant protein source for the young, provides nitrogen, phosphorus, amino acids, and vitamins essential for development of these vegetarians. Pollen is collected in pollen baskets (corbicula) on the workers' rear legs.

Nectar, obtained from floral nectaries deep within flowers, provides a pure carbohydrate source for all stages. Each workers fills her honey sac within her digestive system, increasing her weight by up to one half. Upon arrival at the hive, the worker regurgitates the contents of the honey sac to the younger workers within the hive. These younger workers receive the nectar, which is processed by enzymes within their honey sacs, and tipped into storage cells where it ripens for five days. At this point the substance becomes honey, and the cell containing it is capped for storage. Nectar from 5 million flowers is required to producea single pint of honey (Tales From the Hive, 2000).

Water, the final substance brought to the hive, is essential for hydrating all of the individuals within a hive and cooling it throughout the year. Approximately five gallons are required to hydrate and cool the colony each year (Hooper, 1976).

Queens can be distinguished from workers by their longer tapered abdomens and greater size. Queens have the longest lifespan of all of the bees within the hive. Their major role centers around egg laying to insure the vast numbers of individuals required to maintain a hive.

Mature queen with eggs. Photo by Zach Huang.

Colonies will make a new queen if the original is ailing or infertile. This is done by producing a special wax cell around 7 or 8 fertilized eggs, the oblong armored incubator looks somewhat like a peanut. Eggs and larvae are slathered with royal jelly (vitamin-rich hormonal goo made by workers) for a two-week period, after which a new queen emerges. The first new queen to emerge stings all her sisters within the specialized wax cell (all of whom are potential queens) and may kill the original queen (her mother).

Five to fifteen days after emergence from her pupal cocoon and cell, the young queen flies off, mating with as many as ten drones over a several day period (Jean-Propst, 1994). She will store the sperm from these matings in a spermatheca for the duration of her life, never to mate again.

Spermatheca storing sperm from matings. Sperm may be viable up to four years. Photo by Zach Huang.

She returns to the hive and begins laying up to 1,500 eggs per day. Queens typically lay 200,000 eggs over their lifetime (Tales From the Hive, 2000). After two to four years, the queen uses up all of her stored sperm and begins producing unfertilized eggs, which give rise to drones. Usually the workers raise oneor more queens from the last of the fertilized eggs to replace the new queen (Jean-Propst, 1994). To maximize hive productivity, honey farmers replace the queen annually or every other year (Bishop, 2005).

Drones are the male bees within a colony. Drones can be distinguished from workers and queens by their large size, rectangular abdomens, large conspicuous eyes, and noisy flight. All drones lack a sting, and have more eye facets than a worker (6,000-7,000 vs. 3,000-5,000).

Worker (left) and drone with reproductive structures protruding. Photo by Zach Huang.

Drones result from unfertilized eggs. They emerge 24 days after the egg is laid. Drones are capable of extracting honey four days after emergence, but prefer to be fed by workers. Unlike workers (sterile females), drones can't fly well, don't gather food for the colony, don't clean, don't secrete wax, and do not care for young. The role of the drones is largely to fertilize new queens. A group of drones follows each virgin queen on her early flights. Several males will mate with each virgin queen while flying, dying immediately after mating since his reproductive organs and the end of his abdomen break off, temporarily plugging the end of the queen's reproductive tract and abdomen

Assuming all goes well, drones typically live for about 50 days. If there is a fertile female in residence, the workers may withhold food from the drones or gnaw off the drones' wings and legs. By fall, all of the males and male larvae are evicted from each colony (Bishop, 2005).

Bee Overview
Bee Anatomy
Life Stages of Bees
Killer Bees (Africanized Bees)
Parasites and Competitors
Bee Products
Recommended Bee Resources

Created 6/23/05. Last modified 12/27/07.