The life of bees

Bees are insects belonging to the hymenoptera order (of Greek hymen: membrane, as they have translucent and membranous wings), like wasps and ants. They live everywhere in the world, except where winter is too cold. There are many bee species (about 20.000), but the ‘honey bee’ species is called Apis mellifera (or Apis mellifica) by scientists.

A very organized social life

Just like ants, bees are social insects and cannot live alone: they need to be with a colony. A very organized colony, made of tens of thousands workers, of a few hundred drones and only one queen.

From egg to bee

According to the type of alveolus, the queen will lay a fertilized egg (future queen or worker bee) or a non-fertilized one (future drone). In any case, the egg will become a small white larva on the 4th day.

From that time on, you may determine if it is:

– A queen larva
– A worker larva
– A drone larva

— The worker bee

Also stemming from a fertilized egg, worker bees hatch in standard hexagonal wax alveoli. Fed on royal jelly for 3 days, they then eat a mixture of honey and pollen.
The cell is sealed on the 9th day. Transformations take place more slowly than in the queen, and the adult bee (or ‘imago’) tears its wax seal to join the rest of the colony on the 21st day.
Worker bees, more numerous than the other kinds (between 30.000 and 70.000 per hive) have an atrophied reproductive system. In the colony, they work continuously and are responsible for many tasks to ensure the hive runs properly. All of them deliver various tasks during their lifetime, contrary to ants (each ant accomplishes just one specific task).
The life expectancy of a worker bee depends on the season. It is about 45 days in spring and summer, about a few months for worker bees born in autumn, because they will survive all winter.

DAYS OF LIFE

FUNCTIONS

TASKS

Day 1-5 CLEANER Cleans the alveoli before the queen lays a new egg and warms up the brood.
Day 4-10 NURSE May start feeding young larvae under 3 days, then royal larvae (with royal jelly) if any. Worker larvae are fed a mixture of honey and pollen after 3 days of life.
Day 8-15 ARCHITECT Builds and maintains honeycombs thanks to the wax glands on its abdomen. Is sometimes called wax bee.
Did you know?
For a colony to build 100 g of wax alveoli, it has to work for 8000 hours and consume 1 kg of honey.
Day 10-20 STOREKEEPER Stores pollen and nectar into the alveoli.
Day 15-22 AIR CONDITIONER Ventilates the hive by quickly moving its wings in order to maintain a sufficient temperature and hygrometry.
Day 20-24 SECURITY GUARD Guards the hive entrance to get rid of intruders such as wasps, butterflies and even drones from August.
Day 21 to death FORAGER Flies from flower to flower to collect nectar, pollen and propolis. In 3 weeks time, may cover 700 km to bring nature’s wonder back to the hive.
Did you know?
A forager bee flies back and forth 10 to 100 times between the hive and the flowers, depending on how far flowers are located.

 

— The drone (male bee)

Stemming from a non-fertilized egg, the male larva develops in a hexagonal (horizontal) alveolus, bigger than those of worker bees. Like other larvae, it is fed on royal jelly for 3 days, then on a mixture of honey and pollen that contains much more pollen than in this of workers.
This cell is sealed on the 10th day after the egg was laid. The adult drone leaves the hive on the 24th day.
Bigger, rounder and hairier than worker bees, drones have no sting.
Contrary to forager bees, they are not attached to a particular hive. When going out from April to July, drones try to fertilize a virgin queen during the nuptial flight. Then drones die. They may contribute to the pheromone and temperature balance of the hive, but this has not been determined yet.

 

The queen bee

Stemming from a fertilized egg, the queen bee grows in a royal (vertical) cell that is much bigger than those of worker bees.
The young queen larva is abundantly and exclusively fed royal jelly. The royal cell is sealed with wax on the 9th day. The adult queen leaves her cell after fledging, on the 16th day after the egg was laid.

As soon as she is born, the queen must kill all the larvae of the other royal cells, because there can be only one queen in the colony.

Should other queens be born at the same time, they will fight a merciless battle with their stings. Designed to sting several times, the latter is only used for this ‘royal struggle’.

The victorious queen leaves the hive a few days after hatching for a single nuptial flight (if climate conditions allow her to do so, she needs fair weather and temperature above 20°C). For the queen to be properly fertilized, she must mate with a dozen drones until her spermatheca (reservoir for spermatozoids) is full. Once fertilized, the queen goes back to the hive and will never leave it again during her 4 to 5 years of life (unless in case of swarming).

Once she is back to the hive, the queen bee starts laying eggs. She lays at will, whether male or female eggs depending if they were fertilized or not: fertilized eggs will become worker bees, non-fertilized ones will become drones. During springtime, the queen may lay more than her own weight every day, up to 2000 eggs a day (about 1 egg a minute)!

The queen also produces a number of chemical substances called pheromones that entail specific behaviors in the colony (cohesion of the bee cluster, behavior of the court…) and modify the physiology of forager bees (atrophy of their reproductive system).

Always cared for, protected and fed by worker bees, the queen lies at the heart of their attention.