How do Bees Reproduce?

Pinterest Hidden Image

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. With a constant need for new generations, you might wonder how do bees reproduce themselves? Let’s explore the amazing world of bee reproduction and learn more about how bees mate.

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

The are many types of bees in the world. Two of the most popular 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 some differences between them too.

Bee Reproduction

Reproduction is important in all species of bees – none have very long life spans. In order to sustain the colony new adults must be produced. Bee pollination plays an important role in the plant world – whether for modern agriculture or wild plants. A healthy supply of adults is necessary for good pollination.

Life cycles and nesting habits vary. 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.

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

Reproduction in Honey Bees

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

  • as individuals
  • on the colony level

A colony needs to rear a constant supply of new bees to support a population of 40,000 – 60,000 during Summer.

So new baby bees are constantly being reared (especially during the warm season) if conditions are good.

Increasing Colonies by Swarming

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.

There are many factors that contribute to this action. Crowding in the hive is the most common and Spring is the most likely time for it to occur. Beekeepers often invest a lot of energy in trying to prevent swarming honey bees.

Honey bee reproduction by various stages of brood rearing image.

How do Bees Reproduce Sexually?

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 female – same as a queen.

Join Our Beekeeping Community

Free "Secrets to Successful Beekeeping" plus weekly newsletter with info about bees, beekeeping and more...

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

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

A colony consists of 3 types of bees: female workers, male drones and usually one female queen. The workers are not reproductively mature – they can not mate. So, honey bee reproduction involves the queen and the drones.

Contrary to what some think, mating does NOT take place inside the hive. This would be a true genetic disadvantage. Queens mating with drones so closely related to them would tend to be unhealthy.

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.

Mating Flights

A few days after a new queen emergences from her wax cell, 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”. How does the queen know where to go to mate? We don’t know!

In these special areas, mature drones monitor the sky for queens. Drone bees have large eyes and they put them to good use. They need to be able to see queens in flight.

When a virgin queen is sighted, several drones will give chase. Mating of honey bees takes place in flight.

The queen opens her sting chamber to allow a male to mount her and insert his endophallus (penis).

Once connected the drone 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.

Afterward, the drone falls to the ground where he will shortly die. Over the next few days, the 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.

Bee larvae and capped brood inside a beehive image.

Egg-Laying Queen

After mating, the queen begins to fulfill her role in the hive – egg laying. Eggs are released from the ovary and travel down the oviduct before being deposited in a hexagonal beeswax cell.

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

As the egg travels through her body, she has the option to release semen and fertilize the egg – or not. Her choice depends on many factors that all relate to the needs of the colony.

A queen begins her pattern of egg laying near the middle of a frame and expands in an outward spiral. This is why beekeepers check the brood pattern in this area of the hive to gauge the quality of the queen.

Drones develop from unfertilized eggs and they are “haploid” – meaning that they only have 16 chromosomes instead of 32.

Worker bees and drone honey bees inside the hive image.

Developing Young

Honey bees are insects and (like all insects) go through 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

Each member of the colony is necessary and serves a special purpose. Workers are females that do all the work and protect the colony.

Worker bees live for about 6 weeks during the summer. But over the Winter months, specialized fat winter bees can live much longer – up to 6 months.

The drone bee (male bees) 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. They are only needed to mate with virgin queens.

Queen Replacement

Queens do not life forever. If her egg laying or her queen bee 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.

To make a queen, the colony must have very young larvae from a fertilized egg (female). These female larvae are fed a special rich diet.

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

Once the first virgin queen emerges from her cell, she stings the other virgin queens to death with her smooth stinger. After a few days, she is ready to take her mating flight and start the process anew.

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.

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

Reproduction in Bumble Bees

While there are similarities, life among the Bumble bees is a bit different. Over the long Winter months, the queen has been hibernating under piles of leaves, forest debris or bark. Other members of the bee colony die when Winter arrives.

In Spring, a mated queen Bumble bee emerges from cover and builds a small nest. 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.

Mating

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. This differs from drone honey bees that return to the hive every evening.

Unlike a honey bee queen, a queen bumble bee usually mates with only 1 male (not 12-20). Also, mating among bumbles bees takes place on the ground – not in the air.

Shortly after mating, instead of returning to the nest to lay eggs – 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.

Cape Bees Reproduce Asexually

We can not discuss bee reproduction without a nod to the Cape Bees (Apis mellifera capensis). This is a subspecies of honey bee found in the cape of South 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.

FAQs

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.

Why is mating with several drones a good thing in honey bees?

Using semen from a variety of male bees results in genetic diversity and healthier insects over all.

How do bees mate?

The way bees mate depends on the species involved. Most bee reproduction requires male and female. Honey bees mate while in flight but other types of bees do not.

Conclusion

Over thousands of years, bees have developed ways to mate and reproduce. Their reproductive cycle is tied to the environment in which they live.

Understanding how honey bees reproduce is very important to beekeepers. We strive to ensure that our hives have all the resources necessary to be strong and productive. This mean a good mated queens and healthy workers to take care of her.