nesting habits of the honey bee and red mason bee

Gardening with kids - Teaching children all about the life cycle of the honeybee and red mason bee

To follow on from last weeks article where we looked at bees and their anatomy this week we have been learning about the different nesting habits of the social honey bee and the solitary red mason bee.

Social Bees

Social bees live in colonies within a hive, produce honey and are ruled by a queen and the size of the colony and structure of hives can vary between species. The bumble bee tend to nest on the ground in relatively small colonies of 100 -200 worker bees compared to the honeybee who colonies can contain more than 50,000 worker bees. We are going to take a closer look at the honeybee.

Honeybee hive

The honeybee hive. honeybee hive contains combs of hexagonal cells made from wax. These cells are used for raising grubs and storing honey. Bees use the hexagonal structure because it offers them the most efficient solution of storing as much honey as possible using as little wax as possible. Inside the honeybee hive there are three castes of bee; Queen, worker bee and drone. The queen and worker bee are both female and the drone are males.

The job roles of bees in a hive

Each caste has a particular role within the hive.

The queen is the largest bee in the colony and there is only one queen in a hive. The queen is female and her main job is to mate with drones and lay lots of eggs. The queen bee is essential to the survival of the hive as she is the only bee who can reproduce and keep the life cycle of the hive going.

Worker bees make up the biggest percentage of the colony, they are all female but are born sterile so are unable to reproduce. The worker bee has to work her entire life span and she does all the jobs in and out of the hive. Worker bees clean the hive, feed the grubs, cap cells, cares for the queen, forages, produces honey and protects the hive from predators.

Drone bees are all male and they are hugely outnumbered by the worker bees. The drone has one job only and that is to mate with the queen. Drones do not collect pollen and rely on the worker bee to feed them.

Life cycle of a honeybee

In the hive there are three caste of bee, Queen, worker bee and drone. Each caste has it’s own individual life cycle and the transition from egg to adult varies depending on the caste. The life cycle of a honey bee is in four stages; Egg, Larva, Pupa and Adult.

Egg Life cycle of a honey bee. Egg in cellEach bee starts life as an egg laid by the Queen. If the egg is fertilised by the queen then it will be female and develop into either a worker bee or even a queen bee. Unfertilised eggs develop into males and are drones.

Larvae Life cycle of a honey bee. Egg in cellAfter approximately three days the larvae hatches from the egg. For the first three days all larvae are fed a royal jelly which is a nutritious honey bee secretion. After the first three days only the queen larvae is fed royal jelly and worker bees and drones are fed on honey, water and pollen. Each caste spends a different amount of time as a larvae. The queen spends up to 5 1/2 days as larva, the worker bee 6 days and the drone 6 1/2 days.

Pupa Life cycle of a honey bee. Egg in cellThe pupa stage is when the bee starts to develop into a more recognisable form. The bee no longer looks like a grub but has three distinct body parts and features such as eyes, legs and wings. Just like the larvae stage each individual caste spends a different amount of time in the pupa stage. The queen sends roughly 7.5days, the workerbee 12 days and the drone 14.5 days.

Adult stage Life cycle of a honey bee
By Waugsberg (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Once the bee is fully grown and has developed into an adult it chews its way out from the capped cell and is ready to accomplish the jobs it was born to do. For the worker bee this means immediately cleaning out the cell from which it has just emerged.

Solitary Bees

Not all bees live in colonies in fact the majority of bees in the UK are solitary bees who live alone and build individual nests. Solitary bees have different ways of building nests some nest directly in the ground by digging holes, others like to nest in hollow tubes and one species ‘Osmium bicolor’ will only nest in discarded snail shells. We are going to be taking a closer look at the Red Mason bee.

The red mason bee nest

There are both female and male red mason bee. The males are easily identifiable by their white moustaches and the only interaction they have with the female bee is in early Spring when they mate. Once the female has mated and stored enough sperm she begins constructing a nest. Red mason bees like to nest in hollow tubes and wall cavities. Individual cells are created and  separated by a wall of mud. Each cell is filled with a mixture of pollen and nectar known as “Bee butter” and a single egg. Unlike social bees, solitary bees do not raise their young instead they provide enough bee butter for the grub to eat and to see it through to adulthood.  The female bee lays the female eggs at the back of the nest and the males at the front this is because the male bee emerges a few weeks earlier than the female. The male bee has short mandibles that make it easier for them to dig there way out of the cells and in turn creates a passage for the females. The males will wait for the females to emerge and then will mate with them. The red mason bee has a short life span of a few weeks from Spring to late June but in this time she is able to build several nests.

Life cycle of the red mason bee

The life cycle of a red mason bee is much longer than that of the honey bee. The cycle takes roughly 1 year to complete. The eggs are laid in spring then from June to September they develop to larva, to pupa and then to adult inside a cocoon. Once fully formed they remain in the cocoon and hibernate over the winter months and then finally emerge at the end of March.


The female mason bee lays one egg in each individual cell. Female eggs are  fertilised with the sperm that the she has collected and are laid at the back of the nest. Male eggs are left unfertilised and are laid at the front of the nest. Male bees are smaller than the females and so the amount of food and cell space they require is smaller.


By Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The egg hatches into larvae and the grub eats all the bee butter in the cell.


During summer the larvae spins a cocoon, pupates and even when fully formed they remain in the cocoon safe and warm throughout the winter months.


By Orangeaurochs from Sandy, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
As spring arrives the males emerge from the nest followed by the females a few weeks later and the cycle starts again.

Social and solitary bee nest activity

Making a bee hive and nest out of old toilet roll tubes was this weeks activity   for our daughter. This was a fun and creative way of giving her a very basic understanding of the different way bees make nests.

We’ve had a lot of fun learning about bees and have enjoyed making lots of bee inspired crafts. If you have enjoyed this article then please follow us on social media where you can see more ideas.