Facts about the animal kingdom

Life Cycle of a Honey Bee

Nick A. Romero
By Nick A. Romero, Biologist and environmental educator. Updated: January 30, 2024
Life Cycle of a Honey Bee

Bees are more than just diligent pollinators; they are intricate creatures with a complex life cycle and a clearly defined division of labor.In hives, each bee plays a specific role, contributing to the functioning and survival of the colony. Based on their respective castes within the hive, honey bees develop specific physical attributes that also dictate their distinct life cycles.

The upcoming AnimalWised article delves into the life cycles of honey bees, examining the variations based on whether they assume roles as queen bees, worker bees, or drone bees.

You may also be interested in: How Bees Make Honey
  1. Bee metamorphosis
  2. Castes of bees
  3. Life cycle of a queen bee
  4. Life cycle of a worker bee
  5. Life cycle of a drone bee

Bee metamorphosis

Metamorphosis is a complex biological process that leads to significant changes in certain creatures. This process involves shifts in their physical attributes and functional behaviors, resulting in noticeable transitions from one stage to another.

For bees, this process entails complete metamorphosis, also known as holometabolism. This refers to a specific developmental progression that certain insects, including bees, go through. It consists of distinct stages that bring about substantial changes in appearance, anatomy, and behavior as the insect moves from one phase to the next.

Beginning with the egg stage, eggs are typically laid by the queen bee and placed in hexagonal wax cells constructed by worker bees.

Once the egg hatches, the bee enters the larval stage—a period of rapid growth and nourishment. At this point, it looks quite different from an adult bee, lacking many mature features.

Following the larval stage, the bee enters the prepupal stage, a pivotal moment of transition marked by physiological changes in preparation for pupation.

The larva seals its cell with a silk cap, initiating the pupal stage—a phase of remarkable metamorphosis. Within the sealed cell, the bee undergoes intricate changes, with its body gradually transforming into its adult form.

Until this point, the developmental path is similar for all bees. However, upon reaching adulthood, distinctive physical attributes become apparent, signifying their roles within the hive. The division of adult bees into different castes—worker bees, queen bees, and drone bees—determines their functions, responsibilities, and contributions to the colony's survival, growth, and reproduction.

These particular physical traits of adult bees are tied to their caste and role within the colony. Worker bees, for instance, possess compact bodies with specialized features like pollen baskets and adaptable wings. In contrast, drones are characterized by larger size and notable prominent eyes, particularly important during mating flights. Queen bees exhibit elongated abdomens for egg-laying, while also releasing essential pheromones that foster hive unity.

If you're interested in delving deeper into this topic, make sure to explore another article that covers everything you need to know about animals undergoing metamorphosis.

Life Cycle of a Honey Bee - Bee metamorphosis

Castes of bees

The division of adult bees into three main castes—workers, queens, and drones—is a remarkable adaptation that contributes to the overall success and functionality of a bee colony. This division serves several critical purposes that enhance the colony's survival and reproduction:

  • Worker Bee: the majority of adult bees in a hive are workers. They are characterized by their compact size, with well-defined body segments. Their bodies are covered in fine hairs that aid in pollen collection, and they possess specialized pollen baskets on their hind legs. Worker bees have two pairs of wings and six legs, enabling them to navigate the complex tasks they perform both within and outside the hive.

  • Drone Bee: drones are larger than workers and possess larger eyes. They lack specialized structures for pollen collection, as their primary role is to mate with a queen from another colony. Drones have larger, broader bodies, making them distinguishable from worker bees.

  • Queen Bee: the queen bee is the largest bee in the colony. She has a long, tapered abdomen, which allows her to lay eggs efficiently. Her mandibles are adapted for grooming and laying eggs, rather than for tasks such as pollen collection. Queen bees also possess well-developed wings, although they rarely leave the hive after their mating flights.

Roles within a bee colony are defined through a combination of factors. Worker bees, drone bees, and queen bees all share the same genetic pool, but their roles are shaped by how their genes are expressed and manipulated by factors like nutrition and environmental conditions:

  • Nutrition during the larval stage also plays a role in defining roles. The larvae destined to become queen bees are fed royal jelly throughout their development, which triggers genetic changes that set them apart from worker bees. Worker bee larvae are fed a mix of pollen and nectar, while drone bee larvae receive extra nutrition.

  • The environmental conditions of the hive can also influence roles. For example, in times of nectar scarcity, worker bees may focus more on foraging tasks to ensure the hive's survival. Similarly, in response to environmental threats or changes, bees may adjust their roles to address emerging needs.

In essence, the roles within a bee colony are dynamic and interconnected. The coordination of roles ensures the hive's stability, reproduction, and overall success.

Make sure to check out another article that discusses the various types of honey bees, featuring information on different species.

Life cycle of a queen bee

The life cycle of a queen bee involves distinct stages, each contributing to her essential role within the hive. Let's delve into the details of the queen bee's life cycle:

Egg stage

The life cycle of a queen bee commences when a fertilized egg is laid by the reigning queen or, in some cases, a newly introduced queen. During this initial stage, the egg's potential to become a queen is determined by the special diet provided to it—royal jelly, a nutritious secretion produced by worker bees.

Larval stage

Once the egg hatches, a small, elongated larva emerges. This larva is distinctively fed with copious amounts of royal jelly. This nutrient-rich diet triggers certain genetic changes within the larva, enabling it to develop into a fully functional queen. This phase lasts for about three days.

Prepupal and pupal stages

The larva then enters the prepupal stage, during which it undergoes a transformative process. Afterward, it is sealed inside a cell with wax for the pupal stage. During pupation, the larva transforms into a fully developed queen bee. This process takes roughly seven to eight days.

Adult Stage

As the pupal phase concludes, the new queen emerges from her cell as a fully developed adult. Her emergence is marked by a distinct "piping" sound, which is essentially a series of high-pitched calls that signal her readiness to take on her role. The newly emerged queen is noticeably larger than worker bees, with a longer abdomen.

Mating stage

Following her emergence, the queen embarks on a series of mating flights. During these flights, she mates with several male bees, or drones, to collect a lifetime supply of sperm. This sperm is then stored within her body for the duration of her life.

Egg laying stage

Once her mating flights are complete, the queen returns to the hive and starts laying eggs. Throughout her life, a queen bee can lay an impressive number of eggs—up to 2,000 eggs per day under optimal conditions.

Decline stage

As the queen ages, her egg-laying capacity decreases. Worker bees can sense her declining pheromone production, and this prompts them to prepare for her replacement. Worker bees will start to rear a new queen by selecting a young larva and feeding it a diet rich in royal jelly. Once this new queen emerges and matures, the old queen may leave the hive with a group of worker bees in a process known as swarming.

Life Cycle of a Honey Bee - Life cycle of a queen bee

Life cycle of a worker bee

The life cycle of a worker bee spans through various stages, each contributing to the colony's growth, functioning, and survival:

Egg stage

The worker bee's life begins when the queen bee lays a fertilized egg in a hexagonal cell within the hive's comb. These tiny, oval eggs are about the size of a grain of rice. Within three days, the egg hatches into a larva.

Larval stage

As the egg hatches, a white, grub-like larva emerges. Worker bees attend to these larvae, feeding them a diet of royal jelly, pollen, and honey. Over the course of six days, the larva experiences rapid growth, shedding its skin multiple times. The larval phase is marked by an impressive increase in size.

Pupal stage

At the end of the larval phase, the worker bee larva undergoes metamorphosis, transitioning into the pupal stage. During this period, the cell is capped with wax by worker bees. Inside the sealed cell, the pupa undergoes profound changes as it transforms from a larval form to an adult bee.

Adult stage

After about 12 days of pupation, the fully developed adult worker bee emerges from the capped cell. Initially, the new adult bee is soft and slightly darker. However, within a short span, its exoskeleton hardens, and its wings unfold and expand.

Initial hive tasks

Upon emerging, the young worker bee assumes tasks within the hive. Initially, it cleans cells, cares for the brood, and constructs the comb. These early roles help prepare the young bee for more complex tasks as it matures.

Complex hive tasks

Around the age of 20 days, the worker bee's role shifts to foraging outside the hive. It ventures out in search of nectar, pollen, and water. Foraging is a demanding task that requires navigation, communication, and the collection of essential resources for the hive.

Decline stage

Worker bees, due to the physical strain of foraging, typically live for several weeks. The wear and tear from their activities eventually take a toll on their bodies. As their wings become worn and their bodies show signs of age, they are phased out of foraging duties and transition to tasks like cleaning or guarding the hive.

The life cycle of a worker bee encompasses approximately 21 days from egg to adulthood.

Don't overlook another this other article that explains the dietary habits of honey bees.

Life Cycle of a Honey Bee - Life cycle of a worker bee

Life cycle of a drone bee

The life cycle of a drone bee follows a distinct path within the bee colony, embodying its specialized role in the reproduction of the hive. While shorter and less varied than the life cycle of worker bees, the drone bee's journey is crucial for maintaining genetic diversity within the bee population:

Egg stage

The life of a drone bee begins when the queen bee lays an unfertilized egg in a larger, slightly raised drone-sized cell. These eggs are larger than worker bee eggs. Within a few days, the egg hatches into a larva.

Larval stage

The drone bee larva, resembling that of worker bees, feeds on a diet of royal jelly initially, transitioning to a mixture of pollen and honey. This diet sustains the larva's growth over a period of around six days.

Pupal stage

Following the larval phase, the drone bee larva enters the pupal stage. The cell is capped with wax by worker bees, and within the sealed chamber, the pupa undergoes a transformative process. This stage typically lasts about 14 days.

Adult stage

At the culmination of the pupal stage, the fully developed adult drone bee emerges from the capped cell. Drone bees are larger than worker bees, with broader bodies and notably larger eyes. They have no stingers and lack the specialized structures for pollen collection found in worker bees.

Mating stage

The drone's primary role revolves around mating. Drone bees are driven by an instinctual urge to mate with queens from other colonies, ensuring genetic diversity. They typically leave the hive to congregate in specific areas called "drone congregation areas." Here, they compete for the opportunity to mate with virgin queens during their nuptial flights.

Reproductive stage

When a drone successfully mates with a queen, it transfers its genetic material to her. The mated queen stores the sperm within her body, allowing her to lay eggs that are fertilized with the stored sperm for the rest of her life.

Decline stage

The life span of a drone bee is relatively short, lasting around 90 days on average. As the winter months approach or resources become scarce, worker bees typically expel drones from the hive, as they are no longer essential for reproduction.

The drone bee's life cycle centers around its singular role in contributing to the genetic diversity of the bee population. While their lives may be relatively brief, the drone's participation in the mating process plays a vital part in maintaining the health and adaptability of bee colonies.

Before you go, we recommend taking the time to read an additional article that delves into the importance of bees and the concerning issue of their declining populations. Furthermore, do not miss the video we leave you below.

If you want to read similar articles to Life Cycle of a Honey Bee, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  • Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2023). Bee . Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/animal/bee
  • Hammond, G.; M. Blankenship (2009). Apis mellifera . Animal Diversity Web. Available at: https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Apis_mellifera/
  • Skinner, J. (2023). How long do worker honey bees live? Available at: https://bee-health.extension.org/how-long-do-worker-honey-bees-live/
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Life Cycle of a Honey Bee