Understanding the life cycle of a bee helps the bee farmer to better plan, maintain and profit from his apiary. There is a general life cycle, but also specific life cycles for each of the classes of bees. Bees are also not like bumble bees and wasps, in that they are perennial.
The general life cycle of bees, follows the same pattern of most insects:
• The queen lays a single white egg in a cell.
• The larva hatches after 3 days. The larva is fed by the workers, while remaining in the cell. The larva sheds its skin 5 times in this stage.
• The larva spins a cocoon around itself by day 9
• The pupa stage varies in length, according to which class of bee this will be. Queens emerge on day 16, workers emerge on day 21 and the largest bee class, the drone, emerges on day 24. During this stage, the bee pupa actually already looks like a bee
• After three or four weeks the bee is ready to leave the nest
The specific life cycle of the different classes is generally the same, but varies in the time needed to produce the offspring. The offspring depends on the egg that is laid, as well as on what food the larva is fed
The queen bee lays fertilized and unfertilized eggs, according to the need for either drones or workers. Most fertilized eggs will become non-reproductive females, otherwise known as worker bees. The workers will live from 1 – 4 months, and the bee population is made up mostly of workers. Worker bees go through different work stages during their adult lifespan. In cold, extended winter areas, workers live longer, and in warmer climates they have a shorter lifespan.
• Day 1-2: The workers first have to clean and repair the cells in the brooding comb. The queen will only lay an egg in a cell that is in good repair.
• Day 3-11: Next the worker will be known as a nurse bee. During this stage she will care for the larvae and pupae. The cells need to be cleaned, and the young need to be fed.
• Day 12-17: Now the worker begins producing wax, and her job entails making wax honeycombs for brooding cells and for food storage. Cells containing mature honey also need to be sealed.
• Day 18-21: During this stage the workers take part in many different tasks that need to be done – honey cells need to be sealed, drones need to be fed, the queen needs to be groomed and fed, the honeycomb needs building and repairing, pollen needs to be packed, propolis needs to be spread over the walls in a thin layer, dead bees, shed skins and other waste matter needs to be removed, and water needs to be brought in and moved around inside the hive. During hot weather many of the workers have to fan the hive by beating their wings. The water brought in by other workers evaporates, and the air is directed in or out of the hive according to the need.
• Day 22-42 Foraging now takes priority. Pollen and nectar are collected from as far away as 1,5 miles (2,4 km).
All the unfertilized eggs contain 50% of the queens genes, and hatch into drones. The drones are the largest bees, and their only function is to mate with the queen, to produce offspring. They do not even eat themselves, and need to be fed by the workers. Drones usually die after mating, or they are evicted from the hive before the cold of winter sets in.
Once the queen ages, or the colony grows to crowded, a few fertilized eggs are laid in larger cells. By feeding these larvae with royal jelly they develop into virgin queens, which are groomed to take the queens place when she dies, or to establish new colonies when the colony grows too large for the hive. A queen lives for 3 – 4 years.
The life cycle of a bee is very organized, but this is very necessary to keep the hive running smoothly, in light of the very short lives the bees lead.