Learning About the Honeybee Life Cycle

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Varying aspects about the lives of honeybees are mysterious to those who do not know much about them. For your learning about the honeybee life cycle, here is a useful article that we have prepared for you. It details the various processes and stages that take place for honeybees to reproduce and be able to do the many awesome things that they do. All readers stand to benefit a lot from this article; not only those that are beekeepers. It has many practical tips and knowledge that will make you a better beekeeper and more friendly to honeybees in your area.

Honeybees are a social insect. They form large groupings called colonies or hives. In many ways, a honeybee colony behaves like one organism made up of the different groups of bees. Each colony makes a home out of a suitable habitat. The habitat that a honeybee colony lives in is called a beehive. It is in hollows spaces that form naturally or that are artificial. Honeybee beekeeping makes use of different types of beehives to provide living space for honeybee colonies. As a true insect, a honeybee undergoes four stages of development; egg, larva, pupa, and adult in sequence.

Adult honeybees are of three types. You can identify them with practice and other helpful methods such as by marking the honeybee queen. The three types of honeybees that make up a honeybee colony are a queen bee, drone bees and worker bees. At any one time, there is only one queen bee in a honeybee colony. Drone bees are produced seasonally and can sometimes be absent or very few in number on a honeybee colony. Worker bees make up the bulk of the honeybee population in the colony.

Queen Bee Roles in a Honeybee Colony

The queen bee of a honeybee colony is a large female bee that is very important in the colony’s setup. She is responsible for the continuity of the colony by laying eggs to produce new bees, and releasing pheromones. Queen bees are the only inseminated female bees in their colonies and can thus lay fertilized eggs.

A queen bee can lay a fertilized egg or an unfertilized egg. She knows what type of egg to lay in each cell based on the size of the honeycomb brood cell, and some urging or pointers from the bees that attend to her. The queen bee lays only one egg in each brood cell. It is usually in position at the center of the cell.

Queen bee pheromones are a hormone that acts on the honeybees of the colony and makes them stay loyal to the colony. They also suppress fertility in other female bees in the colony. Lastly, queen bee pheromones guide honeybees that venture outside the beehive with fixing the final position of the beehive upon their return.

Queen Bee Production and Life Cycle

Colonies of honeybees raise queen bees once every several years. This is because one queen bee lives for up to 4-6 years. A specific set of conditions must be met for the colony to attempt to raise a new queen bee. If the conditions are not present in the colony or beehive, the colony will not raise a new queen bee.

Basically, if the queen bee of the honeybee colony is present, healthy, strong, laying eggs of the correct type and frequency, and producing adequate amounts of her pheromones, the colony will keep her. If she fails in one or sometimes more of these functions, the colony raises another queen bee to replace her. Additionally, the colony will raise a new queen bee when swarming is going to occur due to too much colony strength.

Do Honeybee Queens Come from Fertilized or Unfertilized Eggs?

For a queen bee to be raised, the honeybees in the colony must have a fertilized egg. They build a queen cell (also called supersedure cell) on the edges or across the face of honeycomb. Any honeycomb that is near or within the brood area of the beehive can be used for the making of a queen cell. Worker bees then move the fertilized egg from the cell it is in, to the queen cell. Sometimes, the worker bees make the queen cell and have the current queen bee laying a fertilized egg in the queen cell. The egg hatches 3 days after it is laid.

When the fertilized egg in a queen cell hatches, nurse bees feed it a type of food called royal jelly that has high protein content. This goes on until the larva is sealed in its queen cell after 7 ½ days since the egg was laid. The larva is in its larval stage for 5 ½ days, and is sealed into its supersedure cell before it finishes its larval stage of development. In the sealed supersedure cell the queen bee larva and creates a thin cocoon around itself and pupates. After pupation for 8 days, the new queen bee emerges as an adult bee. It takes a period of 16 days from egg laying to the emergence of an adult queen bee.

What do New Honeybee Queens Do?

The newly-emerged queen bee (virgin queen bee) has her fair share of work cut out for her. First, she must go through the different areas of the beehive and kill any other queen bees that have not emerged. She stings them once or repeatedly through the wax walls of their queen cells. This causes them to die.

If another queen bee has already emerged, the two or more queen bees briefly fight and sting each other until one wins the fight. The winner remains as the reigning queen bee. She is first treated in special feeding and care regimes so to quickly heal any injuries she got during the fighting. Losers in such a fight might die soon after the fight from injuries sustained in the fight, or form a splinter swarm to start a new colony elsewhere, or just be kicked out of the beehive.

When Do Honeybee Queen Mating Flights Take Place?

After ensuring that there no competitor queen bees in her colony, the new queen bee spends a few days finishing her development, eating for maximum strength and exercising her wings. She will also be releasing some pheromones in the beehive in the 3-4 days to establish her presence, dominance and ensure acceptance by the honeybee colony. At the end of this period, she is ready for mating and goes out of the beehive for her mating flight (nuptial flight).

On the day of the honeybee queen mating flight, the virgin queen bee heads out of the beehive with assistance and guidance of worker bees of the colony. She performs a few orientation flights around the beehive. This ensures that she can find her way back to the beehive after the mating flight. Once she is sure she that she can navigate her way back to the beehive, she seeks out and flies to a drone congregation area. She finds the drone congregation area using pheromones that the drones release in their flights.

What Happens in Drone Congregation Areas?

In the drone congregation area that she finds or chooses, the queen bee flies around among the thousands of drone bees. The drone bees in turn fly after the queen bee and each drone tries to catch the queen bee and mount her. Drone bees that catch the virgin queen bee align their thoraxes with the queen bees’ abdomens.

The successful drone bee loosely holds onto the queen bee’s upper abdomen using its legs. It then arches its own abdomen and releases its endophallus. The endophallus is the male reproductive appendage of drone bees. It pierces the skin of the underside of the queen bee’s abdomen and reaches her sting chamber. The drone bee then ejaculates his semen containing spermatozoa (sperms) into the queen bee’s sting chamber.

After ejaculation of semen, the drone bee lets go of the queen bee and flies off. In flying off, the endophallus of the drone bee remains stuck in the queen bee’s abdomen. This is because the endophallus of the drone bee is barbed. It is also attached to a ring of weak abdominal skin tissue that tears easily.

Tearing off of the drone bee’s endophallus causes physical injury that the drone bee cannot recover from. It dies soon after mating with the queen bee. In one instance of mating, a drone bee inseminates the queen bee with about 6 million sperms. The queen bee stores the sperms in her oviducts and spermatheca.

On Average, How Many Times Does a Queen Bee Mate?

A queen bee that has mated with a drone can return to its beehive or continue flying in the drone congregation area. If it remains in the area, it has high chances of mating with another drone bee. The queen bee may fly home to its beehive and later perform another mating flight to the same or different drone congregation area.

Queen bees typically mate with more than one drone bee and can go on more than one mating flight in one day. They can also go for mating flights on several days in sequence. On average, one queen bee mates with 12-14 drone bees in up to 6 mating flights that they go on in a span of 1-3 days.

When a drone bee finds the endophallus of another drone from previous mating instances still stuck to the queen bee’s abdomen, he tries to remove it. They have varying degrees of success. If the queen bee returns to the beehive and still has one or more endophalluses stuck in her abdomen, worker bees quickly remove it from her abdomen without failure.

For the 3 days that they can go out of the beehive for mating flights, queen bees will keep mating with drone bees until they feel adequately inseminated or are impacted by factors such as poor weather, age, number of drones available and the number of times that the queen bee has already mated . At the end of her series of mating flights, the best-mated queen bee has up to 100 million sperms stored in her oviducts and about 5-6 million more sperms stored in her spermatheca.

When Do Honeybee Queens Start Laying Eggs?

When she feels adequately inseminated, the queen bee stays in the beehive without venturing out again. She will remain in the beehive until her death, ejection from the beehive due to failing, or leaving with a swarm to start a new colony elsewhere. There a few and documented rare cases of old queen bees going out on mating flights after they have run out of sperm to fertilize eggs.

In the beehive, the inseminated queen bee starts laying eggs in the available brood cells and continues releasing pheromones. She eats royal jelly only for the entire duration of her life.

Worker Bee Roles in a Honeybee Colony

Worker bees are the largest group in the population of a honeybee colony. They do most of the work in the beehive, and all the physical work that must be done in the beehive. A honeybee colony that does not have an adequate number of worker bees, or none at all is doomed to fail. Some worker bee roles in a honeybee colony are;

  1. Keeping the beehive clean. This involves removing any unwanted material from the beehive including debris of various types, dead bees, pests, and parasites. The pests and parasites may be dead or alive. Worker bees will try to eject them from the beehive anyway. If the material cannot be removed from the beehive, worker bees seal it in place using resins and propolis that contain any microorganisms that would otherwise harm the honeybee colony.
  2. Collecting all resources that are needed in the beehive, such as water, nectar, pollen and plant resins. This is the duty of forager bees which are a sub-group of worker honeybees. Forager honeybees can go out of the beehive on foraging trips.
  3. Making honeycomb using beeswax that they produce from their bodies. The honeycomb is useful for the rearing of brood and storage of food resources in the beehive.
  4. Making different types of food from the resources that forager bees bring to the beehive.
  5. Feeding the brood and the queen bee. This is a preserve of a sub-group of worker bees that are called nurse bees. They are the worker bees that are 5-14 days old and have not yet started going out of the beehive on foraging flights.
  6. Grooming, and cleaning the queen bee. This is also primarily the role of nurse bees.
  7. Fighting off attackers, predators and other threats to the beehive and honeybee colony.
  8. Ejecting unwanted members of the colony such as drone bees and failing queen bees.
  9. Maintaining the beehive’s environmental conditions at their optimal. These are mainly the temperature and humidity of the beehive. Worker bees use a number of methods not limited to fanning the beehive and ensuring airflow through the beehive, and fetching water and then releasing it on beehive surfaces from which it will evaporate.
  10. Sealing cracks, openings or vents to maintain the integrity of the beehive. It prevents predators, pests and parasites from having easy access into the inside of the beehive, and also prevents water and other environmental elements from unwanted entry into the beehive’s internal space.
  11. Guarding beehive entrances and exits from intruders including honeybees from other colonies.

Worker Bee Production and Life Cycle

Worker bees are female honeybees. They come from fertilized eggs that the queen bee lays. Worker bees are raised in the regular-sized bee brood cells. They take 21 days from the laying of eggs to the emergence of adult worker bees.  Honeybee eggs hatch and release larvae 3 days after they are laid.

Upon hatching, the brood for the production of worker bees is fed royal jelly for 2-3 days. It is then fed bee bread until its 6th day of life. The jelly used to feed larvae of worker bees and drone bees has less protein content that the jelly for feeding larva that is being raised to produce a queen bee. Worker bee larvae stay in the larval stage of development for 6 days.

After six days of feeding, the larva for worker bee production is sealed in its cell using a light layer of wax. It spins a cocoon around itself and pupates. The pupa stage for worker bee development is 12 days long. The adult worker bee then emerges by chewing its way through the wax cap of its brood cell.

Adult worker bees in a honeybee colony have a lifespan of 6-20 weeks. Its longevity depends on how much activity it does during its lifetime. Worker bees that are produced in spring through to late fall (autumn) do a lot of work. They die at a faster rate that the worker bees that are produced during the end of fall and in winter. Worker bees that are produced during winter are called winter bees. They do not have a lot of work to do in the beehive and can live for 4-5 months.

Drone Bee Roles in the Honeybee Lifecycle

Drone bees are male honeybees. The role of drone bees in honeybee colonies is to fertilize queen bees. They do this outside the beehive, in drone convergence areas, while flying through the air, during a virgin queen bee’s nuptial flight (honeybee queen mating flight). Drone bees are in beehives upon their emergence from pupation, overnight to shelter and when they need to eat some feed for their strength. A drone bee eats honey and pollen or bee bread if they find it.

Which Type of Honeybee Eggs Produce the Male Drone Bees?

The eggs that produce drone bees are the unfertilized eggs that queen bees lay. They are usually few in number at a time. The brood cell for raising drone bees is slightly larger than the one that is used to raise worker honeybees. It is, however, smaller than the oversized supersedure cells for the raising of queen bees. Upon hatching, the larva of drone bees is fed on royal jelly for the first 2-3 days of its life. It is then transitioned to bee bread.

Brood larvae that are for drone bee production stay in the larval stage for 6 ½ days. They transition to the pupal stage and are sealed in their cells by nurse bees using a light cap of beeswax. Sealing of drone bee brood cells takes place on the 10th day or thereabouts after the drone larva has transitioned to its pupal stage. It stays in the pupal development stage for 14 ½ days. It thus takes 24 days from the time the egg is laid for adult drone bees to emerge.

Drone Bee Functions and Lifespan

Upon emerging from its brood cell, a drone bee may spend a few days in the beehive eating various feeds, especially honey, and building its strength. It then starts going out to drone congregation areas on a regular basis. Drones follow the pheromones that other drone bees release when they are flying to find drone congregation areas.

In a drone congregation area, drones fly around looking for any queen bee that may have come to the congregation area. If they find one, they try to mate with the queen bee. When the drone has not found a queen bee to mate with, it may return to its beehive for shelter. It may also find itself in a beehive belonging to a honeybee colony that is not its parent colony and not suffer any consequences.

Factors that influence drone flights to drone congregation areas include favorable weather and the strength of the drone. Without mating with a queen bee, a drone bee lives for 5-7 weeks. If a drone is successful at mating with a queen bee in the drone congregation area, it dies soon after the mating.

Drones are evicted from beehives at the end of fall season. Worker bees in the honeybee colonies do not allow drones to overwinter with them. The evicted drone bees die outside the beehive. This happens to most drone bees that are raised in late summer and early fall.

Conclusion

Honeybees are an important insect in many ecological processes. They keep ecosystems going by providing essential pollination services. Forager bees that come from the worker class of honeybees perform pollination when they visit flowers in their search for pollen and nectar. Honeybees also provide a source of nutrition to their natural predators. Beekeeping is the establishment, maintenance and management of honeybee colonies by humans. It is a reliable method of accessing the benefits from honeybees unlike when honeybee colonies are in the wild. Learning about the honeybee life cycle like you have done by reading this article is commendable. Apply the lessons that you have gained to create a better world for honeybees.

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