Life cycle & Living

Life cycle

As in a few other types of eusocial bees, a colony generally contains one queen bee, a female; seasonally up to a few thousand drone bees, or males; and tens of thousands of female worker bees.

Details vary among the different species of honey bees, but common features include:

  • Eggs are laid singly in a cell in a wax honeycomb, produced and shaped by the worker bees. Using her spermatheca, the queen can choose to fertilize the egg she is laying, usually depending on which cell she is laying it into. Drones develop from unfertilised eggs and are haploid, while females (queens and worker bees) develop from fertilised eggs and are diploid. Larvae are initially fed with royal jelly produced by worker bees, later switching to honey and pollen. The exception is a larva fed solely on royal jelly, which will develop into a queen bee. The larva undergoes several moultings before spinning a cocoon within the cell, and pupating.


  • Young worker bees, sometimes called “nurse bees”, clean the hive and feed the larvae. When their royal jelly-producing glands begin to atrophy, they begin building comb cells. They progress to other within-colony tasks as they become older, such as receiving nectar and pollen from foragers, and guarding the hive. Later still, a worker takes her first orientation flights and finally leaves the hive and typically spends the remainder of her life as a forager.


  • Worker bees cooperate to find food and use a pattern of “dancing” (known as the bee dance or waggle dance) to communicate information regarding resources with each other; this dance varies from species to species, but all living species of Apis exhibit some form of the behavior. If the resources are very close to the hive, they may also exhibit a less specific dance commonly known as the “round dance”.


  • Honey bees also perform tremble dances, which recruit receiver bees to collect nectar from returning foragers.


  • Virgin queens go on mating flights away from their home colony to a drone congregation area, and mate with multiple drones before returning. The drones die in the act of mating. Queen honey bees do not mate with drones from their home colony.


  • Colonies are established not by solitary queens, as in most bees, but by groups known as “swarms“, which consist of a mated queen and a large contingent of worker bees. This group moves en masse to a nest site which was scouted by worker bees beforehand and whose location is communicated with a special type of dance. Once the swarm arrives, they immediately construct a new wax comb and begin to raise new worker brood. This type of nest founding is not seen in any other living bee genus, though several groups of vespid wasps also found new nests by swarming (sometimes including multiple queens). Also, stingless bees will start new nests with large numbers of worker bees, but the nest is constructed before a queen is escorted to the site, and this worker force is not a true “swarm”.


Honey bee eggs shown in opened wax cells
Eggs and larvae
Drone pupae
Emergence of a European dark honey bee (A. m. mellifera)

Living and fossil honey bees (Apini: Apis)

Tribe Apini Latreille

Genus Apis Linnaeus (sensu lato)

  • henshawi species group (Priorapis Engel, Synapis Cockerell)
      • A. vetusta Engel
      • A. henshawi Cockerell
      • A. petrefacta (Říha)
      • A. miocenica Hong
      • A. “longtibia” Zhang
      • A. “Miocene 1”
  • armbrusteri species group (†Cascapis Engel)
      • A. armbrusteri Zeuner
      • A. nearctica, species novus
  • florea species group (Micrapis Ashmead)
      • A. florea Fabricius
      • A. andreniformis Smith
  • dorsata species group (Megapis Ashmead)
      • A. lithohermaea Engel
      • A. dorsata Fabricius
      • A. laboriosa Smith
  • mellifera species group (Apis Linnaeus sensu stricto)
    • mellifera subgroup
      • A. mellifera Linnaeus (Apis Linnaeus sensu strictissimo)
    • cerana subgroup (Sigmatapis Maa)
      • A. cerana Fabricius
      • A. nigrocincta Smith
      • A. koschevnikovi Enderlein


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