PLAN BEE: Honey bee development
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PLAN BEE: Honey bee development

May 05, 2023

As a beekeeper, we often go into our hives. Our mentor, Kenny Schneider, always said "Go into your hive for a reason."

Sometimes it may be a quick look to see if they need a pollen or sugar patty. Other times, it may be just to add brood frames, remove some honey frames or add another super. There are times where we need to do a deep hive inspection requiring the pulling of some frames and looking for eggs, larvae or capped brood. Beekeepers can tell a lot about the health of their colony without having to find the queen. The evidence of a quality queen is reflected in the amount of eggs, larvae and capped brood in the hive. However, the evidence of queen cells may indicate the hive is getting ready to swarm or maybe there is no queen or she is not up to par and is being replaced by the colony. Understanding how a little honey bees develops from an egg to an adult is an important aspect of beekeeping.

The four development stages for all castes are the egg, larvae, prepupa/pupa and adult. While the development for each caste is similar, the duration is different. The first stage is an egg with a duration of three days. The queen lays the egg into the hexagonal brood cell. She has a long abdomen, allowing her to insert herself deep into the brood cell and lay an egg. The egg is about the size of a grain of rice; initially standing upright. As the egg progresses through the development period the egg falls onto its side by day three. However, recent videos of nurse bees visiting the brood cell multiple times, offers evidence the nurse bee's constant contact pushes the egg down.

When the eggs hatches at the end of day three, it enters the second stage, larva. The larva has a C-shape and looks very similar to a small white grub, floating in royal jelly at the bottom of the brood cell. Royal jelly is a substance produced by the nurse bees that is secreted from the mandibular and the hypopharyngeal glands. Between day four and day six, the nurse bees feed all the larvae regardless of their caste a milky looking royal jelly secreted from the mandibular gland. The nurse bees will visit and feed the larva the royal jelly 2,000 to 3,000 times during this time. The larva will grow 1,500 times its original size within five days. A pool of royal jelly is continually being replenished at the bottom of the brood cell. The larva eats almost constantly and grows quickly.

On day seven, the nurse bees will feed a different type of jelly based upon the caste of the larvae. The queen continues to be fed a protein rich royal jelly that is a clear looking substance. Queen royal jelly is 34% sugar which increases her appetite, causing the queen to consume more and therefore increase her size. Unfortunately, humans are similar to the queen bee, the more sugar in a pastry or baked good we eat, the more sugar we take in, therefore increasing our size!

The worker larvae are fed a worker jelly with a lower percentage of sugar, mixed with pollen that has a white appearance. Drone larvae are fed a lower quality drone jelly that is similar but has more pollen and less sugar. Drones are fed more often and in greater quantities due to their larger size and longer development. During the larva stage, in order to keep its food supply free of contamination, the larva retains its feces during the entire six days of development and when it has reached full size, it defecates just once right before entering the prepupa stage. Around day nine and 10, the larva spins a cocoon around its body. Spinning a cocoon takes 37 hours for workers, 54 hours for drones and 30 hours for a queen.

The workers cap the brood cell with old and newly produced wax. The capped worker brood cell is flat, the capped drone brood cell has a dome shape and the queen bee cell is similar to a peanut pointing down. The larva enters the prepupa/pupa stage around day 10 or 11, the final development stage.

Inside the capped cell, the small organism is developing eyes, wings, legs, antennae, etc. and undergoing five molts. The pupa does not eat, so defecation is no longer a problem. The honey bees have an exoskeleton that does not grow and during each molt, the pupa grows into a new skin and sheds the old outer skin. On the sixth and final molt, they shed the last skin; cementing the skin into the brood cell prior to the adult honey bee emerging, fully developed. New workers will emerge from the capped brood on day 21, drones will emerge on day 24 and a new queen will emerge on day 16.

One would think the development period for the queen would be longer because of her size however that is not the case. As a larva, the nurse bees continually feed her the heavy concentrated sugar protein rich royal jelly where she will develop more quickly. The worker's and drone's development are longer periods; reflected in the less sugar concentrated jelly with pollen and the drone adding several more days due to its size.

Below is a chart illustrating the different stages and the number days for each caste from egg to emergence from the brood cell as an adult. As beekeepers, understanding the honey bee development stages and their duration is information we use when making additional colonies (splits), making new queens, treating for varroa mites, etc.

Worker Drone Queen

Egg: 3 days 3 days 3 days

Larva: 6 days 6.5 days 5.5 days

Pupa: 12 days 14.5 days 7.5 days

Total: 21 days 24 Days 16 days

I hope you enjoy Plan Bee and better understand the importance of the little honey bee. Thank you for all the positive responses from the many readers who have enjoyed reading Plan Bee.

If you want to keep up on local beekeeping activity, visit our Spring Valley Beekeepers Facebook and request to be a member or better yet come join us on the first Monday at Tunnel Hill Christian Church.

"Remember, it's not how many hives you keep, but how well you keep your hives. Think about that."

Stay safe and Bee happy.

John Schellenberger is a Floyd County Commissioner and beekeeper. He's a member of the Spring Valley Beekeepers.

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