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.