Honey Bee Life Cycle of Workers, Drones and Queens
The study of the honey bee life cycle can be broken down into three components: worker bees, drone bees, and queen bees. It’s a fact of honey bee biology that each has a distinctly different life cycle, and each contributes to the success of the colony in different ways.
The Honey Bee Life Cycle Involves Four Stages of Life
Each of the 3 types of honey bees – queens, workers, and drones – evolve through 4 stages of life:
The queen bee lays 1 egg in a cell. The egg is tiny – about the size of the head of a pin, but with an oblong shape.
The egg hatches into a larva, which looks like a white grub worm.
The larva is fed continuously by worker bees, and grows quite rapidly.
When the larva has grown enough so that it occupies most of the cell, it spins a cocoon around itself and becomes a pupa.
At this point, the worker bees stop feeding the young bee, and cap its cell with a coating of beeswax.
While in the pupal stage, the bee completes the process of transforming into an adult bee.
When the transformation is complete, the bee chews its way out of its cocoon and through the capping of its cell, and emerges to take its place as a productive member of the colony.
The length of the honey bee life cycle varies among the 3 types of bees. Queen bees take about 16 days to grow from an egg to an adult, workers take about 21 days, and drones take about 24 days.
Honey Bee Life Cycle: Queen Bees
In a sense, queen bees are badly misnamed.
They are not the ruler of the colony; instead, they are themselves ruled by the worker bees of the colony.
Queen bees are essentially egg-laying machines, capable of laying well over a thousand eggs per day. Worker bees attend to the queen’s every need. The queen is fed and groomed by workers, and workers even remove the queen’s bodily waste from the hive.
All the queen does is lay eggs.
And all is well for the queen as long as she performs well in her egg-laying duties. In fact, queens live for far longer than drones or worker bees. Where the lifespan of drones and workers is measured in days or months, queens can live for several years.
But it’s extremely rare for queen bees to die a natural death.
As a queen ages and begins to falter in the amount of eggs that she lays, discontent begins to brew among her daughters, the worker bees of the colony. Eventually, her daughters somehow collectively decide that a change must be made.
So they begin the process of raising a new queen, and when the new queen is about ready to take over egg-laying duties, the old queen is murdered by her daughters.
Long live the queen.
Honey Bee Life Cycle: Worker Bees
Worker bees are very aptly named, because they do all of the work of the colony except for laying eggs.
Each worker bee usually performs a number of different jobs during its life span. Some of the jobs that worker bees perform include:
During the summertime when flowers are blooming and there’s lots of nectar and pollen to be gathered, worker bees literally work themselves to death.
The survival of the colony depends upon enough food stores being gathered to last through the winter. During the peak of the season, worker bees labor at such a frenetic pace that they work themselves to death in only about 4 or 5 weeks.
They literally sacrifice themselves to ensure the survival of the colony.
Worker bees that are born in the fall or winter, though, can live for months. Their job is to help see the colony through the cold, dreary days of winter.
They do little work during winter months, but they serve the colony by being heat-generating machines. They eat honey, and convert the energy of the honey into heat, which allows the colony to survive the frigid temperatures of winter.
Honey Bee Life Cycle: Drone Bees
Drone bees are the only male bees in a honey bee colony. The queen, of course, is female, as are all of the worker bees.
Drones are born with only one purpose in life – mate with a queen.
And they live a pretty cushy life while it lasts. They do no work at all; they simply eat, lounge around the hive, and occasionally fly around looking for a queen to mate with.
But ultimately, they pay for that life of leisure.
When the fall sets in, and flowers stop producing nectar and pollen, the honey bee colony goes into survival mode. All of the honey that it has gathered must last until flowers begin to bloom again next spring.
Since the drones do no work, and since there is no need for male bees to mate with queens during the winter months, the drones become a liability. They are extra mouths to feed, with nothing to offer the colony in return.
So as winter approaches, the worker bees one day decide that the drones must go. All of the drones are dragged out of the colony. The workers do not kill them, but if a drone attempts to re-enter the hive, it is repelled.
Deprived of food, shelter and warmth, the helpless drones die of starvation or from exposure to the cold.
And if a drone does find a queen bee to mate with during the summer? Well, that doesn’t end so well for the drone either.
A drone mates with a queen bee in flight. And as the mating process concludes, the drone’s abdomen explodes, and he falls to the earth, dying.
So although drones live a life of ease, it always ends badly!
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