How Bees Reproduce and Become More Bees
No bee lives forever. Without some way to create young, we would soon be a “bee-less” world. Let’s look at how bees reproduce. And, not every bee is a Honey Bee. But Bumble Bees and Honey Bees are the most well-known bees.
Bumble bees mate in late Summer when new queens and males are produced. Male bees leave the nest and never return. They drink nectar from flowers and keep a look out for a virgin queen.
Queen bumbles mate and then eat as much as possible to prepare for hibernation. Only the mated queen lives over winter.
In the Spring, the mated Queen Bumble emerges from cover and begins her nest. She lays eggs and raises a few young. Once she has enough workers to take over foraging, she remains in the nest laying eggs.
The cycle Bumble Bees reproducing continues year to year with mated Queen Bumble Bees hibernating in leaves and tree bark.
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 create a new hive.
Where do those thousands of bees come from? How are baby bees made?
Bees Involved in Reproduction
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. Worker bees do not “normally” lay eggs. And, they 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.
Doing no work associated with keeping the colony alive, the Drone bees have 1 task. This male bee contains semen inside his body that will be used to mate with virgin queens.
A healthy queen lays hundreds or thousands of eggs per day during the warm season.
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.
Life Cycle of a Honey Bee
As the bee larva develop and grow, they are fed by nurse bees inside the colony. All bee larvae are fed royal jelly in the beginning.
Royal jelly is secreted from glands inside the mouth of nurse bees. As the honey bee larva grows, the components of its “brood food” changes.
Insect Bee Reproduction Life Stages
A honey bee is an insect. And like all insects it has 4 distinctive life stages. The life cycle 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 time from egg to adult varies a bit at each stage for the different types of bees. One type may spend a day or two longer as a specific stage.
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 does differ. Worker bees live for about 6 weeks during the summer and longer over Winter when there is no work to do.
This longer life cycle for the worker bee in Winter helps secure survival of the colony until Spring.
A Drone bee or male bee lives for a couple of months during the warm season. However, if he is “lucky” enough to have the opportunity to mate with a virgin queen, he will die in the process.
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.
A New Queen Bee
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 worker 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.
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?
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.
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. Beekeepers rarely receive a bee sting from a queen bee.
She has another task to complete once she has destroyed her rivals. Before she can lay fertilized eggs, she must mate.
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.
Egg Production = Strong Bee Colonies
Egg laying is in full force inside the Summer bee colony. As workers and drones reach the end of their life span, new adults must be ready to take their place.
This is why a bee colony with a queen problem has a serious hurdle to overcome. If rainy weather prevents good mating or the virgin queen is eaten by a bird, the bee colony may be in danger of failure.
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 way 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.