The life cycle of honey bees typically begins with the queen and drones, and is made up of four stages: Eggs, larvae, pupae and adult bee.
Sometimes the life cycle of honey bees does not require the involvement of a drone; When the need arises, the queen can also lay unfertilized eggs that develop into male bees called drones. Is it not strange to think that drones have a grandfather but no father because their egg was unfertilized?
Not all bees in the hive have the same life expectancy. While queens have an average life expectancy of 1–2 years, worker bees only live on average 15–38 days in the summer and 150–200 days in the winter, whereas the life expectancy of drones is an average of 55 days.
Honey Bee Life Cycle – The Courting
When the queen is around one week old she is ready to mate. This is usually the only time during her life when leaves her hive. Hundreds of drones gather at a mating site, called congregation area, waiting to do the honor. These sites often remain the same for the several years but it is unknown how they where chosen. When the drones notice the queen´s pheromone, all havoc breaks loose as everyone is trying to succeed.
Copulating with a bang..
The mating happens mid-air during a nuptial flight and lasts less than 5 seconds. Of all the drones only around 20 ‘lucky’ ones succeed; but they pay a high prize for inseminating her – certain death! A successful drone has to ´catch´ the queen from above, and straddle her with his thorax above her abdomen. Grasping her with all six legs, he everts his endophallus that is normally inside his body and inserts it into her opened sting chamber.
Not all drones that mount the queen successfully manage to transfer semen. If the queen is not ready and her sting chamber not fully opened, mating is unsuccessful. The ejaculation in those that succeed is so powerful that it can be heard as an audible popping sound to the human ear. The everted endophallus paralyses the drone. As he ejaculates he flips backwards, ripping his endophallus off so that his abdomen tears open and he falls to the ground, dying shortly afterwards.
The bulb of the endophallus is broken off inside of the queen. It reflects ultraviolet light, which is a “mating signal” for the other drones. The bulb stuck inside the queen prevents semen from escaping but does not prevent other drones from mating with her.
Did you know that the queen is able to store around 6 million sperms? She stores the majority of sperm in her oviducts (the passage from the ovaries to the outside of the body), while the remaining 5 to 6 million sperm are in her spermatheca (a special sac to store sperm) that allow her to time and control fertilization.
She then uses the sperm as needed at the time to fertilize eggs throughout her life. Science is still unsure how the sperm survives throughout the queen´s lifetime.
Honey Bee Life Cycle – Eggs
Another amazing fact is that queens can control the sex of their offspring. She can determine whether a specific egg is fertilized or not as the eggs pass through her ovary into the oviduct. Fertilized eggs turn into female workers and potential queens; those that remain unfertilized turn into drones.
At her peak, a healthy, fertile queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs each day if there is enough food. That’s more than her bodyweight in a day! The number of eggs laid depend on various factors, like the amount of food available and how many cells the workers have prepared. It is estimated that a queen can lay between 175 – 200,000 eggs per year. Once the queen becomes infertile, she is replaced by one of her offspring.
The bossy worker bees – Midwifes and Nursemaids
Did you know that the worker bees tell the queen exactly where to lay her eggs? Not just the location in the hive. They also decide, which cell should hold a future potential queen, a drone or a worker bee. They do this by building different sizes of cells. Because the different bees hatch at different times, they are built in a particular order. The largest cells are reserved for potential future queens, those with larger diameters are made for the ‘chunkier’ drones. The smallest cells, how else, for the worker bees!
If you think that’s calling the shots, think again! The workers also decide when the queen needs to lay eggs and when to ‘take a break’! This can depend on the season of the year, how much food and water is available, and the size of the hive.
When duty calls, the worker bees literally round her up and take her to the location where she is to lay her eggs. During ‘labor’ they fan her with their wings to cool her down. When she needs to stop her duty, the ventilation is stopped and the heat forces her away from the ‘nursery’.
Each cell is filled with royal jelly. This is to protect the egg and once the larvae hatches it serves as an ‘instant’ food source. Once the eggs are laid, the worker bees seal the cells with wax.
In the rare event when a queen has died or is incapable of laying more eggs, some worker bees have the ability to lay eggs that turn into smaller drones?
Honey Bee Life Cycle – Larvae
After 3 days, the larvae hatch and the worker bees start feeding and tending to them. An interesting fact is that despite of their future role, they are all fed on royal jelly for the first 2 days.
After that, the larvae destined to become worker bees and drones are fed on Perga, or bee-bread. This is a sticky mixture high in protein of nectar and pollen. Future queens are fed exclusively on royal jelly.
When worker bees sense their queen is close to the end of her reign they take action. They simply change the food from Perga to royal jelly to raise new virgin queens. Isn’t it amazing how easy it can be to ‘promote’ a future mere worker (bee) to become a contender to replace the queen?
Honey Bee Life Cycle – Pupae
About six days after the eggs have hatched, the blind larvae reach the pupa stage and the worker bees can relax. The larvae spin into cocoon within their cell and over the next few days develop legs, eyes, wings and the fine body hair.
Honey Bee Life Cycle – The Young Adult Bee
The time it takes to become a young adult bee varies. It’s usually around 16 days to turn into a queen bee, 21 days to become a worker bee and 24 to become a drone. Once the adult bee is ready, it simply chews it’s way through the capped seal at the end of the cell. Like in other societies or colonies, the newly hatched bee s start off with different nominated responsibilities until they get older.