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How do Bees Reproduce?

In spite of living right and working hard, most insects have a short natural life span. Without some way to create young, we would soon have a “bee-less” world. Wouldn’t that be a sad thing? With colonies that are very large, it is common to wonder – how do honey bees reproduce? These and other amazing bees have a plan that has worked for millions of year.

Bee Reproduction: How Bees Mate

Honey bee and Bumble bee gathering food to rear young image.

Two of the most popular insects in the world are honey bees and bumble bees. They share a lot of of common characteristics. Both are social insects that live in colonies. However, there are many differences between Bumble Bees and Honey Bees.

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The life cycle and nesting habits of each respective colony is very different. A bumble bee nest only survives for a season as a whole family unit. While a colony of honey bees can exist for years if they stay healthy.

Honey Bees Reproduce in 2 Ways

Honey bees actually reproduce in a couple of ways. Each method is vital to long term survival of the species.

  • individuals
  • colony level

A colony needs to rear a constant supply of new bees to support a population of 40,000 – 60,000 bees during the warm season. So new baby bees are constantly being reared (especially during the warm season) if conditions are good.

Another way honey bees reproduce is on the colony level. The colony as a whole can reproduce itself through a process, we call bee swarming.

In swarming the colony population will split. Half the population will go to a new location to make a second home. The remainder stay at the old site to continue and regrow in strength.

Honey bee reproduction by various stages of brood rearing image.

How do Bees Reproduce Sexually?

Both bumble and honey bees reproduce sexually. In other words, they mate – having male and female members in a colony.

While honey bees mate to reproduce, most of the colony members are not reproductive individuals. The largest number of bees in the hive are worker bees. They are females – same as a queen.

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.

Another type of bee found inside a hive is the drone bee. A drone is a male bee. They do not work in the colony – depending on the ladies to feed them, protect the hive etc.

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But, the task of drones is very important. They have reproductive parts (penis, testes) – the semen inside their body is used to mate with virgin queens.

A honey bee colony normally has one 1 queen bee at a time. She is the mother of all the bees found in the hive. She has the ability to lay fertilized and non-fertilized eggs. The queen is the largest bee in the hive.

Bees and queen returns to hive after mating for reproduction image.

How Honey Bees Mate

Contrary to what some think, 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. Instead, honey bees have a better plan that increases the chance of more diverse genetics.

A few days after a new queen emergences as an adult), she flies from the hive. This normally takes place on a warm afternoon and she is accompanied by several workers.

The virgin queen 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 of honey bees takes place in flight. The queen opens her sting chamber to allow a male to mount her.

The male bee’s endophallus deposits sperm into the queen very forcefully. The power needed to get the semen past the sting chamber and into the oviduct causes the male reproductive parts to break off. Then, the drone falls to the ground where he will shortly die.

Several queen mating flights take place. Over the next few days, our queen bee mates with 12 – 20 drones.

Once her internal “spermatheca” is full of semen, mating time is over. She will never leave the hive again unless she leaves with a swarm.

The genetic variety provided by mating with multiple drones can produce both light and dark colored bees in the same colony. Having different genes usually results in healthier bees overall.

Bee larvae and capped brood inside a beehive image.

Queen Bees Lay 2 Types of Eggs

Inside the large, long abdomen of the queen, are ovaries containing eggs. Over time, eggs will be released from the ovary and travel down the oviduct.

The queen actually has the capacity to lay 2 types of eggs! She may lay an egg fertilized with semen or an unfertilized egg.

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, she has the option to release semen and fertilize the egg – or not.

Workers or Drones

The colony requires the efforts of thousands of individuals that work together to sustain itself. Both female and males are important to colony life. Though more workers are needed for hive maintenance.

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.

This means that no semen will be released as the egg travels through her body. Drone develop from unfertilized eggs.

Worker bees and drone honey bees inside the hive image.

Colony Makes a New Queen

The story of bee mating could not continue without a way to replace the most vital member of the colony. Queens do not life forever and good egg production eventually wanes.

If her egg laying or her queen pheromones level drops, the colony will make plans to replace her. Yes, sometimes they kill the old queen in order to make room for her replacement.

Conditions must be right for queen production. The colony must have very young larvae from a fertilized egg (female). These female larvae are fed a special rich diet – that includes royal jelly.

The amount and composition of the special diet causes them to develop into sexually reproductive females.

The queen bee is larger than workers and longer than drones. She need a bigger wax cell. A special queen cell is constructed around the several developing queen larvae. These queen cells look like large peanuts hanging along the face of the comb.

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. She stings 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. Beekeepers use this ability of the bees to rear extra queen bees to use in their apiary.

This can be part of a profitable bee business in some areas. But, it does take a lot of resources to rear queens on a large level.

A swarm representing colony level reproduction on way to new home image.

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 hive population leave to form a new colony elsewhere.

The mother hive is left with queen cells – one of these will eventually become the egg layer for the original colony.

Swarming is a way for the bee colony to reproduce as a whole. However, it is not without risks. Sometimes the new swarm and/or the mother colony will fail.

Insect Bee Reproduction Life Stages

A honey bee is an insect. And like all insects it has 4 distinctive life stages. Each bee will pass through these 4 stages of development : egg, larva, pupa and adult. But ,the time it takes to reach adulthood is slightly different.

  • Drones – 24 days
  • Workers – 21 days
  • Queens – 16 days

I think it is interesting to note that the queen takes less time to reach adulthood than the other 2 kinds of bees in the hive.

The total life span (or age) of each type also differs. Worker bees live for about 6 weeks during the summer. But over the Winter months, specialized fat workers can live much longer – up to 6 months.

The drone bee (male honey bee) lives for a couple of months during the warm season. They do not usually live through the Winter. Instead, they are expelled from the hive in late Fall.

Reproduction in Bumble Bees

While there are similarities, life among the Bumble bees is a bit different. In 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 is to build her nest.

When a small nest is constructed, she begins to lay eggs that will develop into female 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 males are produced.

After a few days in the nest, males leave to forage for themselves. Most do not return to the home nest. Later in the season, virgin queens leave the nest to forage and mate with males.

Pair of Bumble Bees mating on the ground near nest image.

Bumble Bee Mating

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 colony will die once cold weather arrives.

This cycle continues year to year with mated queen Bumble bees hibernating. They then emerge next Spring to start a new nest.

Cape Bees Reproduce Asexually

One notable exception to the tale of male and females needed to reproduce-brings up the Cape Bees. Living in an isolated area of the southern Cape of Africa, they do not need males for reproduction.

Instead, female workers are able to lay eggs (fertilized by their own DNA) that become new workers. Researchers can not explain how this is possible.

The Cape bees are also know to practice social parasitism – they invade the nests of other bees and eventually take over by reproduction.

Over thousands of years, bees have developed ways to mate and reproduce. Though all are insect, there is variety among the mating habits and life style. Their reproductive cycle is tied to the environment in which they live.

For honey bees, the warm months are the most active months. When the weather is suitable and plenty of food is available, this is the time for the bees to reproduce – either individually or as a colony.


Can bees lay eggs without mating?

In a honey bee colony, female workers can lay eggs – even though they can not mate. However, these unfertilized eggs develop only into drones.

Do female bees get pregnant?

Female bees do not get pregnant as well see with mammal life forms. Instead they lay eggs that develop outside the queen’s body.

Do queen bees mate with their own drones?

This can happen but queens do not normally mate with their own drones. Instead, virgin queens fly to mating sites that are farther away from the hive than her own drones do.

Can a queen bee lay eggs without a male?

Yes, the queen honey bee can lay unfertilized eggs that develop into drones. If she fails to mate when young – or runs out of stored semen, she can continue to lay eggs but they will all be males or drones.