Beekeeping Basics

The Birds and the Bee for Bees, a Guide to Honey Bee Sex – Part 3: Pupae and Puberty

This is the third installment of “The Birds and the Bees for Bees”  If you read my last two posts and for some reason you’ve still come back, congratulations (or, perhaps condolences).

In Part one, we learned about the three different castes, or genders, of honey bees. Part 1: Boys, Girls, and Confirmed Bachelorettes. In Part two, we learned a bit more than we were comfortable with about how honey bees actually get it on. Part 2: The Kinky Stuff.

Now we’re up to part three, and we’ll learn about what happens after the mating – how an egg becomes a bee. Stay tuned for the next and last installment, in which we will discuss super-organisms, and how colonies reproduce via a process called swarming!

Our story picks up after the queen has mated. As we learned in part 2, the queen bee has a special organ called a spermatheca. With it, she can store the sperm from her mating flights for the rest of her life, and fertilize her eggs without ever mating again.

A honey bee queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs in a day. As she is laying, a small group of bees follow her, grooming and feeding her as needed, so that she can focus exclusively on her task of laying eggs all day, every day (being queen doesn’t sound so hot now, does it?)

The queen will either lay a fertilized or unfertilized egg. A fertilized egg will produce a female bee (which can be either a worker or a queen) and an unfertilized egg will produce a male, which we call drones. Because drones are larger than workers, they need to develop in larger cells.  A typical drone cell is 6.4-6.6 mm, as compared with  4.6-5.5 mm for a worker (depending on who you ask, worker cell size is a topic of hot debate in the beekeeping community!) The workers specially build “Drone comb” in which to raise drones. The workers may also build “Queen cups” (discussed in part 1) to raise new queens.

Based on the size of the cell in which the queen is laying, she can somehow (bee voodoo) control whether she lays a fertilized or unfertilized egg. This ensures that unfertilized eggs are laid in drone comb, and fertilized ones in regular cells or queen cups.

A single egg is attached to the bottom of each cell, and then the queen moves on to lay more – talk about the neglected middle child. Bee eggs can be as small as 1mm long, and look like tiny grains of rice sticking up from the bottom of the cell. Honey bee eggs are very difficult to see, unless you are an experienced beekeeper who has trained their eye to spot them.

After about three days, the bee larva will hatch from its egg. Since the larva is tiny and white, just like the egg, this initial hatching doesn’t look nearly as dramatic as you would think. The “chorion” (Think of it as the shell of the egg, but rather than being hard, it’s a soft membrane) dissolves, and the larva eats what’s left of it. The larva  then lies on the bottom of the cell in a little c shape.

Nurse bees will visit the larva often to deposit food into the cell. It is at this point that a future queen would begin to be fed a diet of royal jelly, while workers and drones are fed brood food. The larva just eats and grows for the next five days (for queens and workers) or seven days (for drones). Then, the young larva will start to notice their bodies changing.

Remember when you were younger and your parent/teacher/guardian sat you down and explained the wonderful process of puberty? I doubt it was anything like this. But the word sounds similar. While people go through puberty, bees go through a process called pupation. ( I tried, really tried, to make a pupa-erty pun, but it just didn’t come together.)

Most people think of pupation as something that butterflies do – the process through which a caterpillar builds a cocoon, hangs around on a bush for a few weeks and then emerges, a glorious, winged butterfly. It’s not just for butterflies though, bees do the same thing, up to and including the cocoons!

When the larva is plump and ready to pupate, the nurse bees build a wax cap over the cell. This wax cap is similar to what bees use to seal finished honey in a cell, except that it has small pores through which the developing bee can still breathe.

Once the cell is capped, the larva builds a cocoon and begins to pupate. At this point, it is called a pupa, not a larva. The length of the pupation period depends on the bee’s caste. It takes about seven days for a worker, six days for a drone, and only four for a queen.

Once the bee has pupated, it will chew its way out of the cocoon and the cell. The new bees emerge full-sized, though they are a bit wobbly and disoriented for the first few hours. Once their shells harden up and they get used to their surroundings, they waste little time diving into the housework.

Over a worker bee’s life span, she will have many jobs, including helping to feed brood, carrying dead bees and debris from the hive, building wax, and of course foraging for nectar and pollen. A worker bee can live for a few weeks if she is born in the summer, or a few months if she is born in late fall and over-winters.

So this post was a bit wordier than the usual fare here. I hope it was still interesting for you all! My next post will be the last installation of “the birds and the bees for bees” and I’ll be talking about reproduction as a super organism.

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1 Comment

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    July 27, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    Very interesting! Did you know that Mason bees can tell which sex each egg is, and lays the females deeper into the nesting tubes. She lays the males closer to the end, so that if a predator comes, the females have less of a chance of being eaten.

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