No bee lives forever. Without some way to create young, we would soon have a “bee-less” world. Wouldn’t that be a sad thing? There are many different species of bees and some of the differ quite a lot. As we consider how bees reproduce let’s look at Bumble Bees and Honey Bees. They are 2 of the most well known types of bees that we see regularly.
Bumble Bees and Honey Bees share a lot of common characteristics. Both types of bees are social insects that live in colonies.
However, the life cycle and nesting habits of each respective colony is very different.
A Bumble Bee colony only survives for a season. While a colony of honey bees can exist for years if the bees stay healthy.
Bumble Bee Reproduction
In the Spring, a mated Queen Bumble Bee emerges from cover. Over the long Winter months she has been hibernating under piles of leaves, forest debris or bark.
The first job of the Queen Bumble Bee is to build her nest. Bumble Bees nest in the ground using burrows abandoned by larger animals.
When a small nest is constructed, she begins to lay eggs that will develop into workers. Once she has enough workers to take over foraging, she remains in the nest laying eggs.
Bumble bees mate in late Summer. This is the time of year when new queens and male bumble bees are produced.
After a few days in the nest, males leave to forage for themselves. Most do not return to the nest. New virgin queens leave the nest to forage and mate with males.
Unlike a honey bee queen, a queen bumble bee usually mates with only 1 male and mating takes place on the ground. Shortly after mating, the queen will begin to look for a place to hibernate for Winter.
The rest of the members of the Bumble Bee colony will die once cold weather arrives.
The cycle Bumble Bees reproducing continues year to year with mated Queen Bumble Bees hibernating and emerging next Spring to start a new nest.
Honey Bee Reproduction
Honey bees actually reproduce in a couple of ways. The individual bees are created through egg laying. Bee eggs are very tiny and look like small pieces of white rice.
However, the colony as a whole can reproduce itself through a process, we call bee swarming.
But before swarming can occur, colonies must build up. We must have enough individual honey bees to supply and maintain the hive.
A strong colony contains 40,000 – 60,000 worker bees. Where do those thousands of bees come from? How are baby bees made?
How do Bees Reproduce Sexually?
A honey bee colony consists of several different types of bees. The largest number of bees inside the hive will be worker bees.
Worker bees are female. Numbering into the thousands, they perform all the bee jobs of the colony except 1. Workers can never lay fertilized eggs because they can’t mate.
The second type of bee found inside a hive is the Drone bee. A Drone bee is a male bee. This male bee contains semen inside his body that will be used to mate with virgin queens.
How Honey Bees Mate
Mating does NOT take place inside the honey bee colony. This would be a true genetic disadvantage.
Queens mating with drones so closely related to them would tend to be unhealthy. Bad traits would be more likely to pass to the next generation.
When the time is right ( a few days after emergence), the virgin queen will fly from the hive. She is often accompanied by several worker bees.
The queen bee flies to a special area called a “drone congregation area”. We still do not know how the queen knows where to go – or the drones either!”
Drone bees have large eyes and they put them to good use. They need to be able to see queens in flight. Several drones chase the virgin queen through the air.
Mating takes place in flight. As the male bee’s endophalus deposits sperm into the queen – it breaks off. The drone falls to the ground where he will shortly die.
Over the next few days, our queen bee mates with 12 – 20 drones. Once her “spermatheca” is full of semen, mating time is over. She will never leave the hive again unless she leaves with a swarm.
Queen Honey Bees Lay 2 Types of Eggs
The Queen honey bee actually has the capacity to lay 2 types of eggs! Without this special talent, there would be no opportunity for honey bees to reproduce!
Inside the large, long abdomen of the queen bee, are ovaries containing eggs. Over time, eggs will be released from the ovary and travel down the oviduct.
A mated queen has semen stored inside a special structure in her abdomen. This is called a spermatheca. Here over 5-6 million sperm are kept alive and viable until needed.
As the egg travels through her body, the queen has the option to release semen and fertilize the egg – or not.
Producing New Bees for the Colony
During egg laying, the queen bee measures the size of each of the honeycomb cells. If the cell is a regular worker bee size, she will lay a fertilized egg into that cell. This egg will become a female worker bee.
However, if the cell is larger and meant for the slightly larger male bee, the queen will lay an unfertilized egg.
No semen will be released as the egg travels through her body. Drone bees or male bees develop from unfertilized eggs.
Insect Bee Reproduction Life Stages
A honey bee is an insect. And like all insects it has 4 distinctive life stages. The development stages of honey bees varies in length or number of days.
But each type of bee will pass through each stage of development. The stages are: egg, larva, pupa and adult.
The total time from egg to emerged adult bee is as follows: Drone 24 days, Workers 21 days and Queens 16 days. I think it is interesting to note that the queen takes less time to reach adulthood than the other 2 types of bees.
The total life span (or age) of each type of bee also differs. Worker bees live for about 6 weeks during the summer and longer over Winter when there is no work to do.
A Drone bee or male bee lives for a couple of months during the warm season. Drone bees do not usually live through the Winter.
They are expelled from the hive in late Fall. With no new queen being produced, the colony does not seem to want to feed them over Winter.
Honey Bee Colony Can Make a New Reproductive Female
When a honey bee colony needs a new queen, they can produce one. The colony must have very young larva from a fertilized egg.
These young larvae are fed a special rich diet. This causes them to develop into sexually reproductive females. This special queen food is known as royal jelly.
The queen bee is larger than workers and longer than drones. A special queen cell is constructed around the developing queen larva. These queen cells look like large peanuts hanging along the face of the comb.
However in recent years, researchers are suspecting there may be more to this queen diet than we first thought. Perhaps it is not just royal jelly that makes a queen bee a queen?
Once the virgin queen emerges from her cell, she will travel to any other queen cells in the hive. Her mission is to destroy her rivals.
This is done by stinging the other virgin queens to death with her smooth stinger. After her time of mating is complete, she begins her life long job of laying eggs.
Bee Reproduction on the Colony Level
If a honey bee colony grows large and crowded, the bees may swarm. In a bee swarm, the queen and about half the bee population leave to form a new colony elsewhere.
The mother hive is left with queen cells. One of those new queens will become the egg layer for the original colony.
Swarming is a way for the colony to reproduce as a whole. However, it is not without risks. Sometimes the new swarm and/or the mother colony will fail.
Final Thoughts on Bee Reproduction
Over thousands of years, bees have developed ways to mate and reproduce. Their reproductive cycle is tied to the environment in which they live.
When the weather is suitable and plenty of food is available is the time for the bees to reproduce – either individually or as a colony.
Both Bumble bees and Honey bees reproduce from eggs. Each type of bee begins life as a tiny white speck and then grows to fulfill their insect destiny.