As a honey bee develops, it goes through four distinct stages. Starting as an egg, within a few weeks it will have transformed into a larva, pupa, and finally, an adult.
In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the lifecycle of a honey bee and how it varies depending on the caste.
The phases of a bee’s development
Honey bees take different amounts of time to develop from an egg to adult bee, depending on their caste. The total development time is 16 days for queens, 21 days for worker bees, and 24 days for drones.
Phase 1: Egg
A queen bee can lay up to 3,000 eggs in a single day. Most of those will be fertilized to produce a worker bee, while the unfertilized will result in a drone. To produce a queen bee, she lays an egg in a queen cell.
A single egg that is the size of one grain of rice is laid in one of the hive’s hexagonal beeswax egg cells. While the egg lies upright for the first couple of days, by the third day it will fall to its side.
After three days, a honey bee egg will hatch to reveal a larva.
Phase 2: Larva
After three days of incubating, the egg hatches to reveal a larva. This small white grub has no sight or legs at this point.
To sustain the larvae, young nurse bees feed them royal jelly for the first 3-4 days. After that, the feeding regime changes depending on their caste.
- Queens are fed royal jelly which is what enables them to become a queen.
- Female workers are fed worker jelly containing less protein.
- Male drones are fed drone jelly containing less protein.
Bees spend different amounts of time in the larva phase depending on their caste. Queens spend the least amount of time as larva while drones take the longest to progress through this stage. A larva will shed its skin (molt) several times as it grows.
|Days spent as a larva
|Up to 5½ days
After around six days of larva development, a nurse bee will cap the cell by covering the opening in a layer of wax. This protective covering is in preparation for the pupa stage.
Phase 3: Pupa
Throughout the pupa phase, the future bee is starting to take shape under the capping. It is still a tiny organism but is growing fast and developing wings, antennae, legs, and eyes. Tiny hairs will start to sprout up over its body. You can learn more about the parts of a bee here.
The queen takes the least amount of time to develop through the pupa stage. Within 8 days she’ll be ready to chew her way out of the queen cell and begin her life. Workers take 4 days longer to develop, while drones are the slowest to emerge, taking over 2 weeks.
|Days spent as a pupa
Once the adult male leaves the cell, worker bees will clear out the cell, preparing it for the next egg.
Phase 4: Adult
Now that the honey bee has reached adulthood, it will immediately go about its duties as part of the colony. Unlike humans, bees don’t require nurturing in infancy. They are ready to go from the moment they leave the cell.
The queen bee has an average life expectancy of 1-2 years although she may live up to 7 years if she’s lucky. Her longevity is reliant on her ability to lay fertilized eggs. Once she starts to slow down, the queen will be replaced by a new one.
Worker bees have different life expectancies, depending on what season they are hatched. The summertime variety has huge amounts of work to get done and is required to work long hours. It usually won’t live more than 6 weeks before running its body into the ground.
Workers born in late fall or winter have a much simpler role. Rather than foraging, they spend the cold months huddled in a group within the hive. Their main job is to keep the queen warm and alive until spring. Winter worker bees may live up to 5 months.
A drone’s life is much easier than a worker’s, with its main purpose being to mate with a queen. It isn’t required to do work like forage or nurse other bees. But an easy life doesn’t mean a drone can expect a longer existence.
There are two possibilities for a drone. It mates with a queen bee and dies immediately afterward as its appendage is ripped from its body. Drones can mate from 16 days of age, so this shows how short a drone’s life can be.
The second option is it doesn’t successfully mate and gets evicted from the hive as winter arrives. A drone may live for up to 5-7 weeks if it is unsuccessful at finding a queen to mate with.
How long does it take for a honey bee to develop from egg to adult?
- Queen: 16 days
- Worker: 21 days
- Drones: 24 days
What are the four stages of a bee’s life cycle?
A bee starts as an egg that is laid in an open cell, before developing into a larva. Next is the pupa stage, where the cell is capped, before transforming into an adult bee.
The honey bee is a complex creature that develops from egg to fully-functioning adult within a few weeks. That’s an impressive feat.
The time it takes to develop, along with the bee’s life expectancy, will depend on whether it’s a drone, worker, or queen. Queens develop the quickest but can expect to live the longest so long as it performs for the hive. Drones that successfully mate can expect a life that may be as short as 16 days.