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Life cycle of a honey bee

Bee BiologyJessica AndersonComment

There are three castes of honey bees: queen bee, worker bees, and drones.

The queen bee is the only fertile bee in the hive. Her two most important jobs in life are successfully mating during the first week or 2 of her life and successfully laying eggs for the remainder of her life.

Queen bees lay 2 types of eggs: fertilized eggs and unfertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs are female bees, these are the worker bees (any fertilized egg also has the potential to be a queen bee, more on that later.) Unfertilized eggs are male bees, they are known as drones.

Worker bees are female bees that are sterile and they make up a majority of the hive (about 85%). They take 21 days to develop from the time they are laid to the time they “hatch”. Their life span ranges from 3 - 6 months (3 months in the summer and 6 months in the winter). Summer worker bees spend the first half of their life doing work inside of the hive, and the last half of their life foraging: collecting nectar, pollen, and resin from plants. Winter bees spend most of their life in the hive, helping to keep the hive warm during winter months.

The life cycle of a worker bee is as follows: the queen bee (the only fertile female in the hive) lays a fertilized egg. The egg is fed a diet of royal jelly for the first three days and then, as the egg begins to form into a larvae, it is fed pollen. It continues to feed on pollen until around day 10. At this time, the larvae sends out a pheromone that tells its care takers that it is ready to be capped. Once capped, the larvae starts to pupate and take on the physical form of a bee. They are no longer fed until they hatch around day 21. Click here for a fascinating video on the first 21 days of a bee's life.

Once hatched, these girls get straight to work! Since their wings have yet to fully develop, their first few jobs are inside of the hive. As different glands develop and wither over time, their jobs will change. Their first duty is that of a nurse bee. They spend their days and nights feeding newly laid eggs and larvae and cleaning the cells of newly hatched bees, polishing them up to ready them to become incubators once again. Next, as glandular secretions from the underside of their abdomens become capable, they are able to secrete wax and begin to manipulate the wax to form comb.

Their next job is regulating hive temperature. They disconnect their wing muscles from the wings and are able to vibrate their wing muscles to produce heat to increase hive temperature, or they circulate the air with their wings in order to evaporate water which helps to decrease hive temperature. From this point they either serve as an undertaker, carrying dead or sick bees out of the hive, or they serve as defenders of the hive (guard bees). After all of the previous jobs, their glands shrivel up and they become foragers. Their little bee GPS’ are fully formed and operating, so off they go to collect nectar, pollen, water and resin to bring back to the hive for food, propolis, and honey.

Now, back to the queen bee. There are 2 scenarios of a hive creating a new queen for the colony. One, if the queen is not doing a good, consistent job of laying eggs or unexpectedly dies, or doesn’t return from her “maiden flight” (more on that later), the hive instinctively knows that they need to rear a new queen. Two, if the hive is becoming over-crowded, they will instinctively produce a new queen so that the hive can swarm. A swarm is the way colonies reproduce themselves. The hive will create a new queen (in her own special incubator), but before she hatches, they will send ten thousand or so worker bees out along with the existing queen to find a new home.

If a hive determines that it needs to rear a new queen in an emergency situation, and they don’t have time to create a queen incubator, they will take a freshly laid fertilized egg and start rearing it like a queen. This means that instead of switching from royal jelly to pollen on the third day, they will keep feeding the developing egg/larvae royal jelly until it is time for it to be capped. This extended diet of royal jelly stretches the belly and turns on the “queen genes” so that she develops ovaries, extra fat, and a stretched stinger. The quality of a queen depends on good nutrition.

Once the new queen hatches, she is tended to by her nurse bees until she is ready for her maiden flight. Once she is strong enough, she will leave the hive, flying about 4 miles away, into a “drone congregation area” where she will mate with anywhere from 20-50 drones. The purpose of her maiden flight is to store enough sperm for her to lay eggs for the rest of her life. Life expectancy for a queen bee is an average of 3 years, give or take.

Drone bees are unfertilized eggs. Drones do not have stingers, nor do they have hive responsibilities. Their lone purpose in life is to mate with queen bees. Drones do not survive winters, they are excused from the hive in late fall and reared again in early winter/spring.

To keep or not to keep

Thinking about beekeepingJessica AndersonComment
Immigrants, we get the job done.
— marquis de lafayette, hamilton

Honey bees are not native to North America, but to Europe and Asia. The front range of Colorado has over 500 species of native pollinating bees, none of which are honey bees, but are just as important. Most of our native pollinating bees are more solitary than honey bees and tend to live in the ground as opposed to the colonies that honeybees live in. The habitats of our native pollinators are threatened by land development, concrete, parking lots, etc. Unfortunately, we can’t tend to these other pollinators the way we can honey bees.

Because honey bees are colonized, we are able to create habitats for them and care for them, and that is where beekeeping comes in. You should be a bee keeper because you want to contribute to the good health of bees in general. This means that harvesting honey probably shouldn’t be your main objective. Keep a healthy hive, and rejoice in any surplus that they provide.
You don’t have to be a bee keeper to help save the bees. Be a good steward of the earth, that is the best way you can contribute to the habitat and well-being of all of our pollinators, beekeeper or not.

This article explains how honey bees were introduced to North America in the 17th century. A few decades ago, an unfortunate parasite was also introduced to North America, and it has been threatening honey bees ever since. It is called the Varroa mite.

There are currently 3 major threats to honey bees: varroa mites, the use of pesticides , and diminishing food resources.

Varroa mites are currently the number one threat to bee colonies in North America. Varroa mites are parasites that attach to the bee, feed on the bee, and inject viruses into the bee. They are most commonly transmitted from hive to hive via other bees coming into the hive to rob honey or find a new home, or at pollination sites. Furthermore, 75% of these mites live under the cappings of the brood (babies who are still developing). So bees are being weakened before they are even born. Varroa mites reach their highest level of infestation at the end of the beekeeping season. They weaken the hive so that the likelihood of the hive surviving through winter is greatly threatened. Your number one objective should be to keep varroa mites under control throughout the season through diligent mite treatment.

Pesticides are the second threat to bees. Harmful pesticides used for crop management kill bees. Herbicides that do not kill bees show up in honey. Bee an advocate for limiting pesticide use and avoid using it in your own garden, and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Buy local organic foods when possible to support local growers who are farming responsibly.

Nutrition is the 3rd threat. Plant bee forage instead of lawns. Encourage your community to do the same! Providing a habitat for bees even if you aren’t a beekeeper.

You don’t have to be a beekeeper to save the bees! Do your part where you can by reducing the use pesticides and herbicides and by providing a bee habitat.

My Story

Thinking about beekeepingJessica AndersonComment

I took up beekeeping in the spring of 2014, inspired by a friend in Atlanta who is a Georgia Master Naturalist and backyard beekeeper. I enrolled in a beekeeping class here in Colorado in January of 2014. My intrigue soon became obsession as we spent 3 weekends learning all about these little creatures. I couldn’t wait until spring when I would purchase a bee package from the local bee keeping association and start caring for my own backyard hive.

During my first season of beekeeping, I reached out to my local beekeeping community a lot for mentoring and advice. There’s a saying in the beekeeping community, that if you ask 5 beekeepers the same question you will get 10 different answers. I quickly learned this was true. Everyone had a different way of doing things and I needed to figure out what felt right for me. My head was spinning and I doubted that I knew what I was doing and feared that I would let my hive down by being a bad keeper.

Towards the end of that first season, I met my current mentor Kristina Williams of Beehave in Boulder. Kristina quickly became my one and only mentor. I call her the bee whisperer. She’s that amazing and knows absolutely everything about honey bees, and a whole lot about a lot of other stuff too.

I’d like to share what I’ve learned about beekeeping over the past few years because I understand how overwhelming it can be, especially for the first couple of seasons. Or when you lose a hive and just want to give up (don’t!). Most of what I have learned came from Kristina, The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro, and Beekeeping for Dummies.

Spring of 2017 will mark my 4th season of beekeeping. And the remarkable thing is (knock on wood), I still have my original hive, and the failure rate for a honey bee hive is about 45% each year. This past season I was able to incorporate beeswax and propolis from my hive into my skin care products, which is incredibly exciting for me.  

I hope what I have to say in these pages will be helpful. Please always feel free to contact me with any questions.  Also, keep in mind that I am a Colorado bee keeper. Beekeeping is VERY region-specific. The advice that I give here may not bee entirely relevant if you are a beekeeper in another region.