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How do Bees Reproduce?

In spite of living right and working hard, most insects have a short natural life span. 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 them differ quite a lot. As we consider how do bees reproduce let’s look at Bumble Bees and Honey Bees. They are 2 of the most well known insects that we see regularly. Bee reproduction is a bit different for both.

Bee Reproduction: Mating of Bees

Bumble Bees and Honey Bees share a lot of common characteristics. Both types of bees are social insects that live in colonies. However, there are many differences between Bumble Bees and Honey Bees too.

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

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

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Reproduction in Bumble Bees

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 Bumble Bee is to build her nest. 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.

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 Bumble Bee colony will die once cold weather arrives.

This cycle of Bumble Bees life 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. 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 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.

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In swarming the colony population will split. Half the population will go to a new location to make a second home.

Honey bee reproduction by various stages of brood rearing image.

How do Bees Reproduce Sexually?

Like our Bumbles, honey bees mate to reproduce. However, the largest number of bees in the hive are 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.

Another type of bee found inside a hive is the drone bee. A drone is a male bee. This male bee contains semen inside his body that will be 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. The queen bee is the largest bee in the hive.

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

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 as an adult), 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.

The genetic variety provided by mating with multiple drones can produce both light and dark colored bees in the same colony.

Queen Honey Bees Lay 2 Types of Eggs

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

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.

Bee larvae and capped brood inside a beehive image.

Producing New Bees for the Colony

The honey bee colony requires the efforts of thousands of individuals that work together to sustain the colony. Where do those thousands of bees come from? And, why do we never see any baby bees?

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. From these eggs, the work force of the colony will develop and take on all the responsibilities of the hive.

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.

Each type of 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.

  • Drone Bees – 24 days
  • Worker Bees – 21 days
  • Queens Bees – 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. But over the Winter months, workers in the hive can live much longer – up to 6 months.

The Drone bee (male honey 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.

Worker bees and drone honey bees inside the hive image.

Honey Bees Colony Makes a New Queen

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.

Beekeepers use this ability of the bees to rear extra queen bees to use in their apiary. This can be a profitable business in some areas.

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 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.

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, this is the time for the bees to reproduce – either individually or as a colony.

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