Do honey bee eggs just sit in the cell and do nothing?

It’s is hard to image what you expect them to do. I’ve never seen an industrious-looking egg, even though a lot is happening on the inside.

Honey bees remain in the egg stage for about 72-76 hours, assuming nest temperatures are normal. During that time, the fertilized (female) or unfertilized (male) cells begin dividing and differentiating into the tissues that will form a larva. This is a complex process that is not visible from the outside.

After the third day, the egg ecloses into a larva. The term “eclose” is used because the larva doesn’t “hatch” like a chicken does. Instead, the outer covering of the egg just dissolves away, which is why you never see egg shells in the bottom of your brood comb.

So, in answer to your question, rather than doing “nothing,” your honey bee eggs are actively growing into larvae.


Drones signal the onset of swarm season

I finally saw my first drone on Wednesday April 20. He made his appearance on the landing board of my busiest hive—just one day shy of a month later than last year. Although I went through the rest of my hives, he was the only fully-formed male I could find.

I did, however, find lots of drone comb filled with eggs, so I know the males are coming. Below is a piece of burr comb that had been built inside one of the feeders. It was built as drone comb—as burr comb frequently is—and each cell has a neatly placed haploid egg inside. Haploid honey bee eggs—those having only one set of chromosomes—are always destined to be male.

These signs tell me swarm season is just around the corner. Once the drones are in abundance, the mating frenzy will begin.


Drone comb filled with eggs.

Wednesday word file: protandry

Protandry is nature’s way of assuring males are sexually mature and ready to mate the moment females arrive on the scene. It tends to assure reproductive success. I first heard the word when I was studying Pacific salmon, but since then I’ve run across protandry in many species.

In salmon, the males travel upstream first. They find a spawning ground, establish their territory, and wait for the females to arrive. In many bees, such as mason bees, the males are the first to hatch. They have a day or so to mature as they hang around nest openings and wait for the females to hatch.

The females of many bee species, including honey bee queens, can decide whether to lay a female (fertilized) or male (unfertilized) egg. So a tube-dwelling bee such as the mason bee can lay female eggs deep within the tube and place the males close to the opening. This specific placement of the eggs allows the whole protandry thing to work.

Protandry literally means “males first.” And, yes, the opposite condition or protogyny exists in some species as well.

Inspecting a new colony: what to look for

You have a new colony of bees. You’ve released the queen and now you’re eager to see what’s happening. But what are you looking for?

First of all, remember that honey bees are wild animals and they prefer to be left alone. When you inspect their hive you are invading their home and they won’t be happy about it. Still, there are times when you need to know what is going on inside, and to do that you make a colony inspection.

It’s generally a good idea to wait about a week after you release the queen to make your first inspection. You want to assure that the queen has been fully accepted and she is laying eggs. Here are some steps.

  • If you are using a smoker, gently puff some smoke into the entrance and wait a few moments. Then gently lift the outer cover and puff some smoke underneath. Wait a minute or two, and then gently remove the cover. Place it upside down on a flat surface.
  • Standing behind the hive, remove the inner cover if you have one. By standing behind the hive you are not blocking the entrance and the bees are less likely to get agitated.
  • You are now looking at the top of the brood box. Start by using your hive tool to loosen one of the frames near the wall of the box. Moving slowly, gently lift the frame straight out. Check both sides of the frame to assure the queen in not on this frame, then set it aside.
  • Now, one by one, slide the next frame toward the empty area and slowly lift it straight out. You want to avoid “rolling” the queen between two frames of comb, so work carefully.
  • Once you have the frame out, look at both sides. Wherever you see new comb, look inside for evidence of eggs or larvae. These are easiest to see if the sun is coming over your shoulder and illuminating the interior of the comb.
  • Always hold the frames over the brood box. That way, if the queen should happen to fall off the frame, she will fall back into the box. This is especially important if your queen has clipped wings—a queen with clipped wings can’t fly back to the hive.
  • If you don’t find anything in the entire brood box but there is a second brood box underneath, return all the frames to their original positions, then remove the entire brood box and set it atop the inverted outer cover. By turning it 90 degrees, you are less likely to squash bees.
  • Repeat the process with the second box. Once you find eggs or larvae, you can stop searching: the queen has been accepted and she is doing her job. Close the hive. Except for filling the feeder, you should leave the hive alone for about two weeks.
  • If you don’t find eggs or larvae, but find the queen, give her a few more days, and then check again.
  • If she hasn’t started laying in a few more days—or there is no queen in the hive—you need to order another queen as soon as possible.


Honey bee eggs in the brood nest

Once the brood comb is prepared, the queen lays one egg in each cell. Estimates vary widely as to how many eggs a queen can lay, but 1500-2000 per day is a reasonable assumption. Over the course of one spring and summer season, the queen probably reaches a maximum of about 200,000 eggs.

When first laid the eggs are about 1/16 inch long (1.6 mm) and a pearly translucent white. Oddly, they stand on end in the cell. Gradually, within the first day, they tip to one side and lie prone at the base of the cell. After about three days, the chorion—the membrane coating the egg—dissolves and the new larva is exposed.

Honey bees keep the brood nest at a constant temperature that ranges from about 91-97° F (33-36° C). This phenomenon is unique in the insect world and requires large populations. If the population isn’t large enough to care for all the brood and keep them warm, the queen will slow the rate of egg laying, and the workers may eat some of the eggs.

The excellent photograph below shows the eggs standing upright in the cells. In the upper left you can see larvae floating in pools of milky-colored royal jelly.


Eggs and larvae in the brood nest. Photo by Wausberg