Mating, murder, and mutiny.
Every royal tale ever told seems to be full of it.
The monarchy of a beehive is no exception.
From laying to slaying, the queen's role & reign expands over the entire hive through a series of verbal and nonverbal communication.
Her daughters will tend to her every need and ensure the survival of the queendom through a white winter.
Her sons, try as they might, will follow an inevitable fate. They will either mate with another queen or be disowned - both destinies lead to death.
This informative account of the honey bee's monarchy will tell the tale of the 5 stages and the 3 very peculiar lives they live.
Table of Contents (Click to Skip Around)
- Stage 1: The Egg
- Stage 2: The Larva
- Stage 3: The Pupa
- Stage 4: The Adult
- The Queen Bee
- - Make Way for the New Queen
- • Mutiny
- • Multiply
- - Birth & Murder
- - A Queen's Mating Flights
- The Worker Bee
- - Job Description
- • Maid (Day 1 - 16)
- • Nurse (Day 4 - 12)
- • Homemaker (Day 12 - 35)
- • Gatherer (Day 22 - Death)
- - Winter Is Coming
- - Laying Workers
- The Drone
- - A Drone's Mating Flights
- - The Unfortunate End
- Stage 5: Death
Stage 1: The Egg
Eggs are the heartbeat of the hive.
If you see an egg, it can be used as a vital sign that your queen is running her hive like clockwork.
Ninety percent of the time, finding an egg means the queen is alive and laying. It shouldn't take you long before you run across a frame full of them.
The queen's day is exhausting. As she scurries around from cell to cell, she'll lay a single egg within each one.
She'll lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. Each resembling a grain of rice, although, a fifth of the size (1mm to 1.5mm).
A queen is constantly busy and her daughters make sure of it. They are evaluating her work around the clock.
Bee eggs are the start of every bees' life regardless of if the egg is destined to become a queen, a worker, or a drone.
At this stage, the eggs will eat their own yolk and do not need to be fed.
They do, however, require warmth over 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is one of the many reasons why you won't often find eggs when the weather is cold outside.
After 3 days, the eggs will hatch into the next stage of life as a larva.
Stage 2: The Larva
The larval stage is where the queens, workers, and drones have the most growth.
Queens develop the quickest and will spend up to 5.5 days in the larval stage.
Workers will spend 6 days in this stage, while the drones spend 6.5 days.
In the beginning, the larvae will be uncapped.
This uncapped phase allows the nurse bees unhindered access to feed the young hatchlings.
The larvae will consume over 800 meals per day and will grow 1,500 times their original size as eggs.
During the first 3 days, uncapped larvae will be fed royal jelly, regardless of if they're a queen, worker, or drone. Royal jelly is a nutrient-rich secretion that comes out of glands in the nurse bees' heads.
After these 3 days, the queen-to-be will have the privilege of continuing to solely eat royal jelly for the rest of her life. Peasant food will never meet her mandibles.
On the contrary, the diets for the worker and drone larvae will be converted to bee bread. Bee bread is a mixture of pollen, saliva, nectar, and sometimes honey.
The bee bread will stunt the growth of ovaries in the worker bees. Meanwhile, the drones never had ovaries in the first place.
The stunted ovaries act as a decree to the worker bees that they shall not mate nor give birth to fertilized eggs in their lifetime.
As members of the royal family, all larvae will end this stage by being crowned with a wax capping.
As they're crowned, they will finish their final meals, molt for the 5th time and join the ranks of the pupa.
Stage 3: The Pupa
At this stage of life, the royal family will be isolated from one another and will enter into metamorphosis. A period in an animal's life that is filled with rapid change in its body structure.
Much like caterpillars turning into butterflies, the capped pupa will spin a cocoon before it becomes a bee.
Once they have started spinning the cocoon they have officially entered into the pupa stage.
The cocoons are spun out of silk that the pupae produce from their thoracic salivary glands. The silk is very fine and easy to breakthrough. This is why they need cell walls made of sturdy beeswax.
The capped cells allow the pupa some privacy and protection while they mature.
They may not grow much more in size, but as a pupa, a bee will form all of its body parts.
Their large compound eyes will change from white to pink, to purple, and finally black.
They'll produce three tiny Ocelli eyes on the top of their heads. These eyes help them orient and triangulate the sun to their hives - even on cloudy days.
They'll also form 6 legs, 4 wings, 2 antenna, their internal organs, their muscles, and finally be clothed with a robe of yellow fur. These hairs will help attract pollen to their bodies.
After 7.5 days of being a pupa, the queen bees will be the first to emerge from this phase. They'll be 16 days old when the sororicide begins, more on this later (every noteworthy plot has foreshadowing).
The worker bees will emerge from the pupa stage after 12 days - a total of 21 days since their mother laid them.
The drones spend 14.5 days as a pupae. They take the longest time overall to grow - 24 days of development.
Stage 4: The Adult
The adult stage of life looks very different depending on a bee's caste.
A queen will lay eggs and comfort the hive.
A drone will explore the vast and curious world to find and mate with a queen.
And a worker will do practically everything else to make the hive a home.
Our story continues with a closer look at the queen bee.
The Queen Bee
The queen is at the helm of every hive.
She's by far the most important bee.
All life within the hive originated from her and every function of the hive is to ensure she lives through winter.
On average, she'll live till she's 3 to 5 years old and, in some cases, she's been known to live till she's 7.
It's likely she'll lay over 1 million eggs in her lifespan.
In the early spring, the queen will lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. This may seem like an incredibly high number of births, but it's an essential part of ramping up the population.
A large population lends itself to being able to forage more pollen while the pollen count is high during April & May. More foraging will ensure more honey is created.
"In the early spring, the queen will lay up to 2,000 eggs a day."
Many people assume honey is what worker bees eat all year long, but it's not.
Worker bees prefer to eat bee bread, a mixture of pollen, nectar, and saliva. Honey is more or less just the preferred resource to help a colony survive winter. It has all the nutrients a bee needs and doesn't freeze as easily as nectar.
Although worker bees prefer bee bread, the queen, nevertheless, has a richer and more refined palate. She is above eating honey and bee bread. She's on a strict diet of royal jelly.
This jelly is chock-full of nutrients that help the queen continue to lay healthy eggs.
A queen cannot produce royal jelly on her own, the worker bees have to feed it to her.
In fact, the queen couldn't survive on her own at all. Let alone through the winter.
What would royalty be without someone to rule? I digress though.
During winter, her majesty will dwindle the queendom down to merely a few thousand workers left to cluster around her to produce heat.
A smaller population would mean fewer mouths to feed out of the honey stores they've worked all year long to fill.
At the center of the cluster, the queen is lodged in a comfortable 90 degree oasis.
The cluster moves together as one unit throughout the frames to consume the honey.
Come springtime, the cycle starts all over with the queen laying eggs.
Make Way for the New Queen
Preparing for a new queen begins with the worker bees.
While the queen governs the population size and delegates the gender of her offspring. The worker bees determine how long the queen lives. This gives your hive a built-in balance of power.
If the queen performs well, she will live. If she doesn't, she will be killed and replaced.
A queen's life is at the mercy of her workers and is based on the strength of the queen's pheromone.
Her pheromone is special among the rest and travels through the hive as she graces it with her presence.
Located in her feet, there are Tarsal Glands that leave an oily substance on the comb that she walks on.
The substance acts as a chemical message that stimulates the worker bees to keep foraging, building comb, storing food, and working hard. At the same time, it calms them and prevents worker bees from making queen cells, laying unfertilized eggs, and swarming.
The pheromone may weaken due to a queen's old age, death, biological defect, or an overcrowded population.
When the worker bees interpret the signs of a weak pheromone, regardless of it's to mutiny or to multiply, it is time to produce a new queen.
When a queen is old, has a biological defect, or is dead, the colony will replace her with a process called "Supersedure".
If she's alive during the process, much like a mutiny among pirates, the hive carries out their plan in secret without the queen knowing.
Here is the colony's coup d'état:
The queen will lay an egg in a normal cell, as she typically does, near the center of the frame. Later on, once the queen has gone to another frame, the coup continues and the worker bees will extend the cell out into a queen cell. They'll continue to feed the larva in the cell royal jelly and raise a queen out of it.
In these cases, sometimes you'll see a queen fight back and bite the cells to prevent herself from being overthrown.
Once the new queen has emerged, the worker bees will thwart and assassinate the old queen.
If the queen has died already, then the hive will be forced to do an emergency supersedure.
During this disaster, the worker bees will scramble to raise a queen before they don't have any uncapped larvae left to choose from.
Once all the larvae have converted to eating bee bread, there is no hope for the hive without a beekeeper to intercede.
If a colony is doing well, it will eventually grow too large.
When this happens, the worker bees along with the queen decide that it is time to multiply. This process is called "Swarming".
Swarming is great for the pollinator population at large, but not so great for the beekeeper.
It would mean that the queen you once knew will be leaving the hive along with 1/2 - 2/3rds of the worker bee population.
This can result in less honey for the year, but it's the natural way that bees reproduce into more beehives.
The world is better for it.
When this occurs, the colony will create queen cups at the outer margins of the comb. Sometimes you may even see these cups on the wood frame itself.
These queens will hatch and then determine which of themselves is the strongest.
A brawl at birth.
A royal battle royale.
A deathmatch to decide their destiny.
Birth & Murder
Since the moment a queen's egg is laid, the clock starts ticking.
The race is on.
Being the first to emerge will surely give her a headstart.
On the 16th day, the firstborn will call for the assistance of her worker bees by piping to them.
Together, they will tear through her wax capping.
For at least a brief moment, she'll experience life.
The first few minutes are merciless.
There can only be one queen.
She must kill the other heirs to the throne.
Scouring the frames from corner to corner, she listens for the piping of the other queens to her workers.
Once their cells are found, she will puncture them.
One or two stings is all she needs to put them to rest.
If two queens emerge at the same time, they'll call to each other.
Like warcries running into battle, the two will fight to the death.
The true queen will be triumphant.
A Queen's Mating Flights
After a victor is named, the new queen will then begin her role as the mother of the hive.
To do this, she must first leave the hive to mate.
If a queen fails to mate, then she would only be able to lay unfertilized eggs (drones).
In a queen's first couple weeks of life, she'll go on one or more mating flights.
They only last 5 to 30 minutes each, but she may travel up to 6 miles in that time period.
She'll travel to a faraway land called a Drone Congregation Area.
We know little about why or how these areas are chosen. What we do know is that generation after generation, the queens instinctively know how to find them.
A queen may travel to multiple DCA's in one flight.
Her goal is to mate with 10 to 15 males before she starts laying eggs.
This ensures a wide amount of genetic diversity that she can bring back to the hive in her spermatheca.
During these nuptial flights, she will fly as fast as she can in order to make sure that her suitors are up to the task, viable, and have the strongest genes.
Once she returns to the hive, she'll start putting the sperm to use by laying worker bees.
The Worker Bee
The worker bee is the bee you grew up seeing.
You watched her buzz from flower to flower.
You helped her out the window of your old school bus.
And you got stung by her while you were walking barefoot in your backyard.
She's the Cinderella of the hive.
Always doing chores, constantly poked and prodded by her sisters, and never receives recognition from mother.
Every worker bee is female and emerges from a normal-sized cell.
Worker bees are laid when the queen chooses to fertilize the egg with sperm from the spermatheca that the queen filled on her mating flight.
The worker bee's honey-do list is incredibly long, ever-changing, and difficult to explain exhaustively.
As she tries to find her true calling in life, she'll become a maid, a nurse, a homemaker, and a gatherer.
Never satisfied and driven by her hormones, her job description will change every week or two until she dies.
Not all bees have the same calling or same timeline.
This depends on when their individual hormones push them into their next role.
Maid (Days 1 - 16)
As a young princess, the baby bee can't handle the same workload as her older sisters.
For this reason, her first few days are filled with minor, but gross, tasks as a maid.
- Cocoon Eating - Worker bees have to "make their bed" so to speak. They do this by eating the cocoons in their cells that they spun as capped pupae
- Hive Cleaning - They'll also clean up some of the neighboring cells. Having a clean cell means mother can reuse it for more eggs
- Dead Disposing - Sometimes bees or brood die within the hive. The undertakers must take the dead bees out of the hive to avoid diseases from spreading
Nurse (Days 4 - 12)
The maid is eventually promoted to being a nurse.
As a nurse, she'll take care of the health and needs of others.
This can be a tireless task that keeps them on a sporadic sleep schedule.
- Larva Fattening - The larvae receive 800 meals per day until they are capped. Guess who has to prepare all those meals?
- Drone Feeding - Drones need to be "hand-fed" even after they emerge. They won't learn to feed themselves until day 4 of their adult lives
- Queen Tending - Like the baby drone, the queen can't feed herself either. She doesn't produce royal jelly like the worker bees do
Homemaker (Days 12 - 35)
Life never slows down for a worker bee.
In this phase, she's in the prime of her life and she's hitting her stride.
Night and day, her efforts will eventually make her hive a home.
She'll jump from job to job, filling the roles as she's needed.
When there's comb to build, she'll build it. When there's heat to fan, she'll fan it. When there's nectar to dry, she'll dry it.
- Pollen Packing - As her older sisters bring back pollen, her job is to offload their pollen pouches and pack it into open cells. The pollen will be mixed with honey to preserve it and will later be used to make bee bread
- Nectar Collecting - Similar to the pollen, the foragers will offload their nectar to their sisters. Although, this time it isn't kept in pouches... The nectar is kept in their honey stomach. This unique stomach separates any pollen particles from the nectar and adds enzymes that will help cure the honey to last for thousands of years without spoiling
- Honey Fanning - The rate at which the honey dries depends on the heat, humidity, and ventilation of the hive. Worker bees will fan out the heat/humidity if need be. The nectar needs to have a moisture content of 19% or less for it to be considered honey
- Comb Building - One bee can produce about 8 scales of wax through the glands on her abdomen in a 12 hour period. About 1,000 wax scales are used to make a single gram of beeswax for their comb
- Honey Sealing - This wax is collected from other worker bees and chewed till it's the right consistency. Then used to cap off the nectar that has been dried into honey
- Air Conditioning - On a hot day, the worker bees will beard and fan the hive. Bearding is when a portion of your bees hang out on the outside of the hive. This reduces the heat and population on the inside. You may also see some fanning at the entrance to cool the hive
- Water Carrying - When you see the fanning at the entrance to cool the hive, you know that there are some worker bees carrying water to them. Bees will get water from nearby sources and spread it on the backs of fanning bees to ensure cold air is coming in
- Hive Guarding - Another task you might see at the entrance is a worker bee guarding the hive. Robber bees, wasps, yellow jackets, ants, spiders, and more will smell the sweet scent of honey and come looking for an easy meal
Gatherer (Days 22 - Death)
These are the not-so-golden years of a worker bee's life.
She finally has a normal sleep schedule, but only because she can't forage at night.
She finally has the freedom to see the world like she's always wanted to, but only to have more risks along with it.
Whether it's a bird, a bus, or a barefoot, the possibility of being killed is always present when one leaves the hive.
During this final phase of a worker bee's life, she'll do just about 500 flights till she can't work anymore.
Then one day she'll ride off into the sunset and never return to the hive.
- Waggle Dancing - This kind of dance is not for courtship. It's to spread a message. A message of hope that tells of fields of flowers, of plants with pollen. The dance is interpreted by its vigor and vector. Followed by fleets sent to forage
- Flower Foraging - Foraging is what makes the world go round. Not just for bees, but for humans too. If bees didn't forage, they wouldn't pollinate. Because they pollinate, we have food. Nearly a third of the world's food supplies come directly from plants pollinated by bees
- Swarm Scouting - As the hive grows, it must multiply. Scout bees are sent out to help find a new place to live. There are many qualities they look for in a new home. Once they've found them, they'll bring other scouts to the location to confirm if it's worthy or not
Winter Is Coming
The job descriptions between spring bees and winter bees are very different.
Springtime is the busiest time of year for a worker bee.
The pollen is plentiful and there's a wealth of nectar to collect. The pace is set and it hardly slows down until autumn.
Once September rolls around, many queens will stop producing drones and reduce the number of worker bees that are being laid.
The queen knows that if she keeps laying 2,000 eggs a day, her children would eat her out of house and home. The honey they've stored all year long would deplete in just a couple of months.
Instead, she lays just enough winter worker bees, around 5,000 - 10,000.
The winter bee's job description is:
- Hive Heating - The hive is heated by clustering together in the center of the beehive. While they are clustering, they start to shiver and shake. This creates friction and provides heat to the queen at the center of the cluster. The worker bees on the frigid outer edge of the cluster will circulate to the center of the cluster and then back out. This keeps all the bees from freezing
- Honey Eating - This cluster will move as one unit from frame to frame in seek of cells full of honey
- Queen Tending - While the colony may be consuming the honey reserves, the queen is still strictly eating royal jelly
Although the job description is smaller, the winter bees themselves are larger in size. Known as "fat bees", their girth helps convert the honey into more usable and efficient nutrients to sustain themselves.
On average, the life of a winter bee is long and simple. They'll live around 6 to 8 months. You can compare this to the overworked spring bee that lives about 4 to 6 weeks.
One other important role that a worker bee may fill occurs in the absence of a queen.
When a queen dies, the worker bees will notice a lack of queen pheromones traveling throughout the hive.
Sometimes the hive notices the fleeting pheromone quickly, and other times they take a few days to become aware of it.
When the hive does finally realize that they are queenless, they try their best to do an emergency supersedure to create a new queen.
Hopefully, they will have caught the issue in time.
They have about 5 days to figure it out.
After 5 days the remaining uncapped worker brood will all have been switched over to a bee bread diet - which renders them incapable of becoming a queen.
If they figure all this out in time, then they'll continue feeding the larva royal jelly and the hive will be saved.
If the hive doesn't solve the issue in time, then disorder arises.
As the pheromone dissipates, the worker bees will make an effort to fill the role of the queen and try to lay more worker bee eggs by themselves.
Unfortunately, they are not mated, so their efforts are made in vain.
The worker bees can only lay eggs that will turn into drones.
To lay a worker bee egg, the mother has to have both the ovaries and sperm in her spermatheca.
In a desperate attempt to save the hive from its fate, a quarter of the worker bees will start to lay drone eggs.
These worker bees are disorderly and sloppy with their laying patterns.
The sure sign that your hive has laying workers is that you'll see multiple eggs within each cell.
This fire cannot be quenched by simply replacing the queen.
It must be extinguished by adding the pheromone of worker bee brood to the hive.
If your hive has laying workers, you'll have to take a frame from another hive that contains freshly laid worker bee eggs and put it into the queenless hive.
Once re-introduced, the worker bee's brood pheromone will bring order back to the hive.
They'll develop another queen from the eggs and put a pause to the pandemonium of drone production.
Drones live a life of leisure.
They don't build, they don't clean, and they don't guard.
In fact, they don't even have stingers to guard with.
During their youth, they can't feed themselves and will demand their much more capable sisters to feed them.
It isn't till their 4th day that they learn how to eat on their own.
When they do finally figure it out, they eat only the choicest meals straight from the wells of honey supers.
They live like kings - so to speak.
At least, for now.
A Drone's Mating Flights
Once they've emerged, drones develop an appetite for two things.
One is honey, the other is to mate.
They'll spend the first two weeks of their life enjoying one, then the next two trying to do the other.
In those first two weeks, they'll also strengthen their wings by taking smaller flights.
Only the strongest will mate.
Around day 16, their biological clocks start ticking.
For the next 12 days, their desire begins to gnaw at them.
They'll fly to and from the Drone Congregation Area multiple times.
From generation to generation, the drones of a colony always return back to the same DCA.
No one knows why or how they do this, maybe it's magnetism, maybe it's from the legends of old passed on through the hive.
Either way, by day 28, their time is up. They'll start to decline in viability and fertility.
From then on, they'll take swigs of honey - the ambrosia of the gods, while talking about their adventures, glory days, and the brothers who lost their lives.
At least, this is what I picture them doing.
The actual end is much worse.
The Unfortunate End
From the beginning of this story, we knew that the drones' fate was an inevitable one.
Either they will mate with another queen or be disowned - both destinies lead to death.
The DCA is a competitive cloud of drones flying in circles about 15 to 40 meters above the ground.
Before a drone leaves the hive, he stands on the bottom board and cleans his two enormous compound eyes.
He was made for this moment.
As he approaches the DCA, he uses these large eyes to help spot the virgin queen.
He'll also try to smell for her pheromone.
Once he's located her, the chase is on.
He flies as fast as he can to catch her.
Lead by his insatiable desire to mate, he'll mount her mid-flight, flex his abs to extend his endophallus (penis), and insert it into her.
If he's successful, his endophallus will break off inside of her.
This ensures his genes will pass on, but also that he will die in his efforts.
Disemboweled, he'll fall to his death.
The queen will continue on her flight.
To ensure a long-lasting production of eggs. She needs to mate with more than just one drone.
Another will dislodge the previous member, mount her, and share the same fate.
If a drone fails to mate, it will eventually be disowned.
The eviction may seem heartless, but drones only have one job.
If they don't accomplish it, the drones could live up to 55 days looting the hive's resources.
This is seen as a waste.
That's why, when the hive hasn't taken in pollen within 48 hours, the drone larvae are all destroyed.
By day 7 of a pollen dearth, there won't be any stages of drone brood in the hive.
By day 14 all drones will be booted from the hive.
In general, a good sign of pollen flow is if there are drone eggs.
If it's not the pollen that leads to eviction, it could be the cool weather.
Drones don't provide warmth through the winter. So why keep them around?
A final factor to drone eviction is dependent on how young the queen is. A hive with a younger queen has a higher eviction rate.
Once evicted, the drone will surely die by the hand of his sisters through starvation, frost, or being eaten alive.
Stage 5: Death
For the individual bees of a hive, death is inevitable.
But, the queendom itself can live forever.
Monumental monarchies can split 2 or 3 times a year.
These swarms pass on the royal bloodline to the next generation.
Dynasties will rise and fall depending on the disease, famine, plague, insecticide, frost, and murder they encounter.
On average, a queen will live 3 to 5 years. If she's lucky, she'll live for 7.
Long Live The Queen!
She is most likely to be killed by her daughters or the chill of a frost.
The worker bee in the springtime will likely live 4 to 6 weeks.
If she doesn't work herself to death, it will more often than not be due to disease, plague, or predator.
The winter worker can live 6 to 8 months.
Frost, starvation, or disease will be her demise.
The drone, if he doesn't mate, will likely be murdered by his sisters. As they evict him, he will die of starvation, frost, or predator.
If the odds are in his favor, he'll take 55 days' worth of the hive's resources with him.
There are times that the whole hive will die. Varroa Mites have been known to do this. So have diseases, insecticides, and the frigid chill of winter.
"There are times that the whole hive will die. Varroa Mites have been known to do this."
Many worker bees elect to make their death easier on their sisters.
They will choose to pardon themselves from the hive when they feel death's hand approaching.
If they die within the hive, the undertaker will remove them to prevent the spread of disease.
As our royal tale comes to a close, here are a few parting words.
Honey bees are a unique blessing to our world and without them, we would quickly starve.
Our existence hinges on theirs.
As they live their very peculiar lives, they'll pass through multiple stages.
Beekeepers, having a noble cause, will witness all of the 5 stages and meet the members of the royal family.
Becoming a beekeeper shows you have guts.
Reading articles like these, shows you have brains.
Having both, you can help the queendom live happily ever after.
Begin Your Bee Journey!
The following articles could be very helpful in taking your next steps.
Recommended First Hives
If you haven't yet purchased your first hive, we recommend one of our Starter Hive Kits. Each kit comes with all the essential parts of a beehive and the accessories you'll need for your first few years of beekeeping. We consider them "Nuc Ready" which means they come with 5 frames and are ready for the 5 that you buy when you purchase a 5-Frame Nuc of bees.