While there are several bee species, most bees fall under the category of the well-known honeybee. A bee’s life cycle consists of four main stages: the egg, larva, pupa, and adult stages.
Apis mellifera, more commonly known as honeybees, have four stages that make up their life cycle. Queens will lay eggs in egg chambers, eventually evolving into larvae. Worker bees feed the larvae until they reach pupation. The final life stage of a bee is adulthood.
Learning more about these fascinating little busybodies is an essential and exciting endeavor for beekeepers and bee enthusiasts. Our article on the life cycle of a honeybee will give you a closer look into these incredible insects. We’ve also included a brief glimpse into the life cycles of bumblebees, carpenter bees, and mining bees.
Life Stages Of A Honeybee
A honeybee has four distinct life stages, including the egg, larva, pupa, and adult stages.
Stage One: Eggs
When the queen is ready to lay her eggs, the worker bees make and shape the wax honeycomb into cells. The queen will then lay an egg in each cell and chooses whether to fertilize the egg. This decision will depend on the cell she is depositing the egg into. Eggs are usually laid around three days after the mating flight.
Eggs will either be haploid or diploid eggs. Haploid eggs only have one set of chromosomes and will produce male bees or drones. Diploid eggs have two sets of chromosomes and will produce female bees that will become worker or queen bees.
Honeybee queens lay their eggs in the center of the cells. Each egg will point straight up, pointing away from the chamber floor. The eggs have the appearance of a grain of rice. When the egg is in its larva state, it will fall onto its side.
It takes around twenty-one days for an egg to develop into an adult bee. After around three days after being laid, the egg will begin to hatch. The outer layer of the egg, also known as the chorion, will dissolve during this process and will become food.
Stage Two: Larvae
Five days after they have emerged, larvae will begin to feed and grow.
The queen does not feed her offspring herself. Instead, worker bees are in charge of all the feedings that take place.
Worker bees have glands in their head that can produce two types of sustenance or food. This food is more commonly known as jelly. Worker bees will check the larvae around every fifteen minutes to ensure they are eating enough.
Because larvae eat in spurts, the worker bee will produce jelly directly onto their head close to their mouth.
The larvae’s digestive system is relatively simple when you compare it to an adult bee. It consists only of a mouth, digestive tract, and rectum.
Larvae also have small structures in their head that act as simplistic brains. This ‘brain’ – also called the corpora allata – receives messages or impulses from receptors that lay along the gut.
The receptors will then respond by releasing juvenile hormones directly into the bloodstream. These adolescent hormones are responsible for the bee’s growth. Developing queen larvae have their own unique and specific queen hormone that is released.
Worker jelly turns a diploid egg larva into a worker bee, while queen jelly turns diploid egg larvae into a queen bee. Queen jelly is usually much thicker and richer in sugar than worker jelly. This added nutrition helps the queen larvae to grow much larger than the other juvenile bees.
Queen larvae can eat between fifteen and twenty times more jelly than other larvae.
Worker bees will decide whether to feed worker or queen jelly to the larvae based on the number of worker bees that are already occupying the hive. If there are too many worker bees, they will make more queens and will then need to move to a new hive with the old queen.
Once the larvae have reached the end of this life stage, they will spin themselves a cocoon. The cocoon signifies that they are entering the next life stage.
Stage Three: Pupa
After the larvae have begun to feed and grow, the egg chamber or cell is then capped with the cocooned pupa inside. The larvae will then take an average of thirteen days to fully develop and change during the pupa stage.
While in the pupa stage, the bee will begin to develop wings, hair, eyes, legs, and other body parts. Unlike male bees or drones, female bees will also develop stingers.
After seven to fourteen days of pupating, the adult bee will chew its way out of the wax capping and successfully hatches from its cell.
Stage Four: Adult Honeybee
Adult honeybees have different development times. The time that it takes for a bee to reach maturity will depend on the caste. Drone bees take the longest at around twenty-four days. Worker bees can take between eighteen and twenty-one days for their development, while queen bees take the shortest amount of time at only sixteen days.
Similar to their development time, different types of bees have various life expectancies, too.
Drones have the shortest life expectancy and, on average, will only live for around thirty days. Male bees are born and bred with the primary function of reproducing. Still, it may be interesting to note that drones die as soon as they have finished mating.
Worker bees have different life expectancies among themselves, which is dependent on when they were born. Worker bees born in the warmer spring or summer months will typically live for around fourteen to forty-two days or between two to six weeks.
Female workers born in spring or summer will typically be much busier than females born in autumn because the hive will be the most active during these months. Females born in autumn can live for up to twenty weeks.
Queen bees have the longest life expectancy, with some queens living for up to five years. However, the average life span of a queen is slightly lower than this and averages between one to two years. Honeybee queens will also live longer if they are kept free from disease.
Life Cycle Of A Bumblebee
Bumblebees are social insects with a unique life cycle. Like honeybees, bumblebees live in nests that are controlled by a queen.
Over the cold winter months, queen bumblebees spend their time underground in hibernation. She will have depleted her body’s fat and energy reserves during this time. Warmer temperatures signal hibernating queen bumblebees in the spring that it is time to search for a suitable nesting location.
Once awake, the queen will restore her energy by eating flowers and drinking nectar before looking for a new nesting site. After finding a suitable location, the queen bumblebee will begin to collect and harvest pollen from flowers to carry back to her new nest.
Queen bumblebees can secrete wax and pollen from their bodies and will typically use this mound to lay their first batch of eggs. Any nectar that the queen collects hereafter is then stored in front of the eggs in a pit-like structure.
To keep her eggs warm, the queen will rest on top of them and vibrate, using the collected nectar to keep herself energized during the eggs’ incubation period. After a few days, the eggs will begin to hatch, and larvae will emerge.
These larvae eat nectar and pollen that the queen collects from flowers as she flies back and forth between them and her nest.
All of the eggs in the initial batch will be female worker bumblebees who will work for the queen. Their responsibilities include tasks both inside and outside the nest. Some of the worker bees will have to begin hunting for pollen and nectar from nearby flowers, while other females will be in charge of guarding, cleaning, and repairing the nest.
While the hunting worker bees will take some of the nectar for themselves, the majority will be flown back to the nest to feed other worker bumblebees and the next brood of larvae.
Once the first worker bees have hatched and reached maturity, the queen bumblebee will no longer leave her nest. The worker bees will be tasked with maintaining the hive and tending to the queen while she produces more eggs.
The queen will eventually reach the end of her life cycle when autumn arrives. New bumblebee queens will be mated and will hibernate during the winter months until the following spring.
Life Cycle Of A Carpenter Bee
Unlike bumblebees, carpenter bees are more solitary insects. These bees get their name from their unique nesting behaviors, in which females dig a burrow into wood to lay their eggs.
Like the honeybee, the life cycle of a carpenter bee has four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult carpenter bees. It takes about seven weeks for an egg to mature into an adult. On average, carpenter bees take around seven weeks to evolve into adults.
Like most other types of bees, carpenter bees begin their short life cycle inside an egg. Before a female bee can lay her eggs, she has to create a hole within the wood.
The female carpenter bee will use her mandibles to burrow deep within the wood until she has made a tunnel that is usually between four to six inches in length. The bee will then make separate brood cells for her eggs individually and fill them with food before sealing the cell up.
Once the eggs have hatched, the juvenile carpenter bees will enter their larval life stage. The larvae are securely stored within the cells created by the female bees. They will feed on the food that has been stored within its chamber. The food – otherwise known as bee bread – is typically a combination of nectar and pollen.
A carpenter bee’s pupal phase occurs when it transforms from a larva to an adult bee. The young bee is particularly vulnerable during this dormant stage. It is, however, safer than many other metamorphosing species because of the elaborate nest in which it lives during development.
Unlike other types of bees, the larva of the carpenter bee does not need to spin itself into a cocoon. Instead, the young bees transform into an adult while they are still in their brood cell.
An adult carpenter bee emerges from its burrow around seven weeks after being deposited into its cell as an egg. The newborn bee exits its cell and emerges from its nest to complete its juvenile life stages.
When the colder months arrive, the carpenter bee will either return to its previous nest or search for another abandoned one to make a new home.
Carpenter bees are also unique in their life cycle. Like honeybees, male carpenter bees die immediately after mating with females. But, the female bees will also die shortly after emerging in the spring and laying their eggs.
Life Cycle Of A Mining Bee
Like carpenter bees, mining bees live a solitary lifestyle and prefer to live alone rather than in colonies. Mining bees also take their name from their tendency to live underground. These bees are most active in early spring.
Soon after the miner bees emerge, they begin to mate. After that, the female mining bees will start digging their nests. Each female bee digs her own individual nest, which is typically made up of a long main tunnel with a few shorter side tunnels that branch off. The nests are usually relatively small and can sometimes measure less than ten inches.
Mining bee females cover the walls and cells of their burrows with a glandular substance that they excrete from a gland near the base of their abdomen. Known as the Dufour’s gland, it is typically associated with the egg-laying procedure.
The gland excretes a clear liquid that will begin to harden over time. Once solid, it will effectively waterproof the brood cells and get them ready for deposited eggs.
Adult females collect pollen and nectar from various flowers and plants to help fill their new brood cells with dry pollen. They will then dampen the pollen using nectar other gland secretions.
The mixture of pollen, nectar, and glandular secretions creates a wet mixture where the female mining bees will lay their eggs. Each egg is laid individually within its own cell.
Once the female deposits the eggs, they are covered and capped with clay. The eggs will hatch into larvae and begin eating the pollen and nectar that the female had stored. The mining bee spends most of its life cycle within these nesting cells, sealed away until it reaches maturity.
The larvae will continue growing throughout the warmer summer months until they molt and become pre-pupal bees. This stage occurs just before winter. The adult mining bee will then complete its pupation in early spring and emerge to mate and repeat the cycle.
Unlike other bee species, mining bees are only active above ground for a few weeks out of the year.
How Honeybees Reproduce
When honeybees mate, the queen will leave her hive and go on a mating flight. Male honeybees from different hives and colonies will gather and hover in the sky at around sixty to seventy feet high.
Virgin queens will only venture out on one mating flight in their lifetime. Once the queen arrives, she will mate with fifteen to twenty-five males. The queen bee mates with as many male bees as possible to reduce the number of mates that come from her original hive and gather a large amount of sperm.
Queen honeybees can store up to one hundred million sperm in their oviducts alone and have a specialized reproductive system that includes an organ called a spermatheca. A spermatheca is a receptacle where the queen bee can store sperm for later use. The queen will store up to six million sperm here.
Each queen will lay up to two thousand eggs in the warmer months of spring and summer, and the queen can decide which type of eggs she will lay. The queen will either lay diploid or haploid eggs.
The queen can choose to release sperm from the spermatheca organ when she releases an oocyte from her ovaries. Using the sperm stored in her spermatheca, the queen will continue to fertilize eggs throughout her lifetime.
Queenright colonies are honeybee colonies with a queen who is capable of laying viable eggs. By producing pheromones, she will be able to communicate this to the hive or nest workers.
Suppose a queen is no longer able to produce fertile eggs. In that case, the colony will replace the existing queen in a process known as supersedure.
For honeybees, the insect’s sex isn’t determined by the presence of sex chromosomes. Instead, the sex mainly depends on whether the queen chooses to fertilize the egg or not.
Honeybees typically have three castes: drones, workers, and queen bees. Each caste plays a specific role within the hive or colony. There are typically more female worker bees than any other type.
Drones are male bees and are produced when the queen lays an unfertilized egg. These eggs are known as haploid eggs because they only contain one set of chromosomes.
The primary function of a drone bee is to mate or reproduce with the queen, and there can be as many as five hundred males in a hive. Drones typically take around twenty-four days to develop and do not have a stinger.
Alternatively, the queen may choose to produce a fertilized egg known as a diploid egg. Diploid eggs make female bees and have two sets of chromosomes. These eggs can either develop into a worker or queen bee, depending on the type of jelly it is fed.
Worker bees take around twenty-one days to fully develop, and they have several functions and jobs within the hive. As a worker bee age, its responsibilities will change.
After emerging from a cell, the worker bee’s initial task is to clean up. Debris, feces, and other waste are removed from dirty cells. Each cell then gets a new application of wax and propolis coating.
Once the cells are clean, the queen will carefully examine each one to ensure that it is clean enough to receive an egg. Worker bees at this stage of life are also in charge of capping older larvae close to becoming pupae.
After cleaning up, juvenile worker bees will change into nurse bees. Nurse bees are responsible for feeding larvae within the hive.
Worker bees that tend to the queen are in charge of feeding and grooming her while she mates and lays eggs. Bees at this stage will also make necessary repairs to the hive and can manage food storage. Over time, their focus will shift to caring for the queen.
Once worker bees have done their duties within the hive, they spend the second half of their lives outside the hive. Outside the hive, their responsibilities include foraging and defending their colony.
The last caste of bees is the all-important queen bee. Queen bees take around sixteen days to develop and are naturally larger than the other bees in the hive. They are fed a special jelly and develop reproductive organs, including ovaries and a spermatheca.
Bees are incredible creatures with complex social interactions, roles, and responsibilities within their hives. When new eggs are laid by the queen in honeybees, other female bees will begin to care for the eggs as they mature through their larval and pupa life stages.
These bees will grow into adult drones and worker bees that continue to work to help the hive and colony thrive.
Other types of bees may differ in how the stages present themselves. But each species adheres to a specific standard of four separate life stages within the cycle, namely the egg, larva, pupa, and adult bee stages.