Honey Bees survive the winter as a colony, and the queen begins egg laying in mid to late winter, to prepare for spring. The queen is the only fertile female,
and she deposits all the eggs from which the other bees are produced. Except a brief mating period when she may make several flights to mate with drones, or if she leaves in later life with a swarm to establish a new colony, the queen rarely leaves the hive after the larvae have become full grown bees. The queen deposits each egg in a cell prepared by the worker bees. The egg hatches into a small larva which is fed by nurse bees (worker bees who maintain the interior of the colony). After about a week, the larva is sealed up in its cell by the nurse bees and begins the pupal stage. After another week, it will emerge an adult bee.
For the first ten days of their lives, the female worker bees clean the hive and feed the larvae. After this, they begin building comb cells. A worker bee receives nectar and pollen from older workers during the second week and stores it. After about the 20th day, a worker leaves the hive and spends the remainder of its life as a forager. The population of a healthy hive in mid-summer can average between 40,000 and 80,000 bees.
Workers and queens are fed “royal jelly” during the first three days of the larval stage. Workers are then switched to a diet of pollen and nectar or diluted honey, while those intended for queens will continue to receive “royal jelly”. This causes the larva to develop to the pupa stage more quickly, while being also larger and fully developed sexually. Queen bees are not raised in the typical horizontal brood cells of the honeycomb but in a cell specially constructed. As the queen finishes her larval feeding, and pupates, she moves into a head downward position, from which she will later chew her way out of the cell.
Worker bees are infertile females. Since the worker bees are not fully sexually developed females, they do not mate with drones. Worker bees also secrete the wax used to build the hive, clean and maintain the hive, raise the young, guard the hive and forage for nectar and pollen. In Honey Bees, the worker bees have a modified ovipositor called a stinger with which they can sting to defend the hive, but unlike other bees of any other genus, the stinger is barbed. Contrary to popular belief, the bee will not always die soon after stinging. This is a misconception based on the fact that a bee will usually die after stinging a human or other mammal.
Drone bees are the male bees of the colony. Since they do not have ovipositors, they do not have stingers. Drone Honey Bees do not forage for nectar or pollen. The primary purpose of a drone bee is to fertilize a new queen. Multiple drones will mate with any given queen in flight, and each drone will die immediately after mating. In regions of temperate climate, the drones are generally expelled from the hive before winter and die of cold and starvation, since they are unable to forage or produce honey or take care of themselves.
The average lifespan of the queen in most subspecies is three to four years. The lifespan of the workers varies drastically over the year in places with an extended winter. Workers born in the spring will work hard and live only a few weeks, whereas those born in the autumn will stay inside for several months as the colony hibernates.
Bees produce honey by collecting nectar, which is a clear liquid consisting of nearly 80% water with complex sugars. The collecting bees store the nectar in a second stomach and return to the hive where worker bees remove the nectar. The worker bees digest the raw nectar for about 30 minutes using enzymes to break up the complex sugars into simpler ones. Raw honey is then spread out in empty honeycomb cells to dry, which reduces the water content to less than 20%. When nectar is being processed, Honey Bees create a draft through the hive by fanning with their wings. Once dried, the cells of the honeycomb are sealed with wax to preserve the honey.
The Honey Bee needs an internal body temperature of 35 °C to fly, which is also the temperature within the cluster. The brood nest needs the same temperature over a long period to develop the brood, and it is the optimal temperature for the creation of wax.
Periodically, the colony determines that a new queen is needed. There are three general triggers.
1. The colony becomes space-constrained because the hive is filled with honey, leaving little room for new eggs. This will trigger a swarm where the old queen will take about half the worker bees to found a new colony, leaving the new queen with the other half of worker bees to continue the old colony.
2. The old queen begins to fail and she is generally killed.
3. The old queen dies suddenly. The worker bees will find several eggs or larvae in the right age-range and attempt to develop them into queens.
When the virgin queen emerges, she is commonly thought to seek out other queen cells and sting the infant queens and should two queens emerge simultaneously, they will fight to the death. A queen will mate multiple times and may leave to mate several days in a row. The queen lays all the eggs in a healthy colony. At the height of the season, she may lay over 2500 eggs per day.