It is an interesting truth that man, in all his brilliance, depends so greatly upon a creature only a few centimeters in size. Yet, it is a truism that becomes ever more evident as bee populations struggle. To maintain our current lifestyle, with our inherent demands on the environment, it is imperative that bees reproduce on a grand scale, to deliver on their important role as pollinators.

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” —Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee

We tend to take bees for granted and their reproductive process rarely receives focus. So, let’s look at the mysteries behind one of the earth’s most brilliant, important and yet tiny creatures. We explore the differences in species of bees and walk through the reproductive cycle, from conception to birth. This brings a new understanding and appreciation for this tiny but essential form of life.

Reproduction of Bees Across the Species

Before we look at honey bee reproduction, it is worth considering that other bees reproduce entirely differently.

  • Bumble Bees. The male bumble bee is aggressive in his mating practices. He knocks the queen to the ground to climb on her thorax, after which mating occurs.
  • Carpenter Bees. The carpenter bee mating process usually begins with a dance. 12 males will join a group of 3-4 female carpenter bees and begin a ‘bobbing’ dance. The females will take flight because carpenter bees must be in the air to mate. A male will then try to climb on her back, with the goal of getting his abdomen underneath hers for mating to occur.
  • Sweat Bees. Sweat bee mating is similar to that of the honey bee, but with a few differences. Male sweat bees are not particular as to whether a female sweat bee has previously mated. Additionally, there is no mating flight. Female sweat bees mate and lay eggs when needed to ensure the survival of the colony.

So, there are many differences in how bees mate. Let’s take a closer look at how this all works for honey bees.

Overview of the Honey Bee Mating Process

How Do Honey Bees Mate?

The male bee (drones) mate with the queen one at a time, to release their sperm.  The drone will fly over a queen with the intention of positioning himself such that his thorax is above her abdomen. A drone’s appendage is referred to as an endophallus, which is tucked within his body and inverted simultaneously. He will protrude his endophallus and insert it in the queen’s sting chamber.

When this happens successfully, his endophallus will flip and secrete sperm in the process. This process takes less than 5 seconds and when he disengages with the queen his endophallus will be ripped off! This means that the act of mating usually kills the drone.

The great mating ritual
Honey bees mate during a mating flight, when a queen is 6-16 days old. She will take to the sky and meet thousands of male suitors, mating with about 10-20 drones.

Check out this fascinating video to see queens and drones mating in mid-air. And have sympathy for the drone…

Reproductive Role of the Queen

A colony of honey bees revolves around the queen. But what is her role in the reproductive process?

Queen honey bees are fascinating creatures that determine the success or failure of the colony. Her oviducts hold most of the sperm she collects, equating to about 100 million sperm. This is the sperm she will use to immediately fertilize eggs. The remaining 5 to 6 million sperm will be stored in her spermathecal. This sperm will remain in good condition for up to 4 years life.

Honey bee eggs

The queen will only fertilize some of the eggs she lays. When an egg moves through the vagina of the queen bee it may become fertilized, because it will press against the spermathecal duct.

Determining the Sexes

The queen honey bee determines the eventual gender of each of her eggs. As the eggs move from her ovaries to oviducts she determines whether it is to be fertilized or not.

How do bees determine sex?
If an egg is fertilized, it will become a worker or queen bee. If it is not fertilized, it will become a drone.

Another gender-related factor for the egg is the orientation of the cell in which the queen lays her egg. A vertical cell will be for a queen, while horizontal cells will be for either a worker bee or a drone. The nurse bees will know what each horizontal cell should hold, based upon the size. The queen and worker bees make these decisions based upon the needs of the colony.

Worker bees are female and can lay eggs as well. But because they do not take a mating flight their eggs are unfertilized and they will only produce drones. The queen is the only bee who can create both male and female bees.

Where the Queen Lays Her Eggs

In their natural habitat, queens lay differently than they do if being raised by a beekeeper. Wild honey bees create hives in locations such as trees. When a queen lays her eggs in these natural settings, she will lay them in an oval shaped cone on the roof of the hive. This is when royal jelly is applied to all eggs to keep the larvae from falling out.

If a queen lays brood inside a beekeeper’s hive, she usually picks a frame near the center of the box to begin laying. Worker bees will apply a small amount of royal jelly to stabilize the larvae on the frame.

When the Sperm Is All Gone

The queen bee only has so much sperm to last her lifetime. When all the stored sperm has gone, which can take up to 4 years, the colony will begin raising a new queen.

However, this can – and often does – happen well before four years have passed. Colonies requeen their hives when they notice their old queen is slowing her egg-laying production. As the name implies, requeening is replacing an old queen with a new one.

But what happens to the original queen?

Worker bees pay very close attention to the queen. If she has a defect causing her production to drop or if her pheromone begins to lessen, which happens with age, they will consider raising a new queen. When this happens, worker bees will smother the queen to death, by balling around her so he overheats and eventually dies!

Queens have a job and the colony depends upon her doing that job. When she reaches the point where she can’t do that job effectively anymore, the colony knows what to do to continue their survival.

Life can be tough in the hive.

Reproductive Role of Drones

Drones are created from unfertilized eggs. These eggs can be laid by the queen herself or, in some situations, by worker bees, though this is not a healthy sign. Drones are created for one purpose – to mate with a queen. Let’s explore the drone’s life a little further.

Drones Fate After Mating

The drone has quite a life. He is created with the primary purpose to mate. Drones do help regulate the temperature inside a hive from time-to-time, but mating is their true lot in life. They don’t have stingers and don’t help contribute food to the hive.

Drones live each day in the hope of finding a queen on her mating flight. Yet, when the drone tries to mate he isn’t always successful. If the queen’s sting chamber is closed the drone will still ejaculate as though he had successfully penetrated inside the chamber. Unbeknownst to him, that was his lucky day because it keeps his endophallus from being ripped off!

If he eventually mounts the queen when her sting chamber is open, he will be able to deposit his sperm for her to store. But when he does a tiny explosion takes place.

When the drone deposits his sperm into the queen’s sting chamber it must be powerful enough to flow past her sting chamber and into her oviduct, so the sperm can be stored to subsequently fertilize eggs. The drone’s sperm literally blasts through the queen’s reproductive system with such force that it will rip off the drone’s endophallus and throw him off the queen.

The explosive life of the drone
For bees the explosion of semen is so powerful it is audible to the human ear, as a popping sound. When the drone’s endophallus is ripped off, his abdomen rips open as well, which leads to his death.

The Drone Congregating Areas (DCAs)

Drones do not usually mate with a queen from their own hive. They fly to areas known as Drone Congregational Areas (DCAs) to seek other queens.

Scientists are still struggling to locate hard evidence why drones pick particular areas to congregate. It is possible that drones choose these areas based on magnetic force. When drones are older than 6 days they have a sudden increase in magnetite within their abdomen. This could literally pull them to certain locations.

Drones return to these congregational spots year-after-year. Often, they will visit multiple congregational spots in one day, each of which can hold a few hundred to a few thousand drones at a time. It is obvious when a place has been chosen as a drone congregational area because they create a buzzing sound almost like a swarm.

These congregational areas range anywhere from 100 to 700 feet in width and are 50 to 125 feet off the ground. Drones are so focused on these areas that if a queen flies by outside of these boundaries they will completely ignore her. The drones give off a certain pheromone to draw queens to them.

The Fate of Drones That Don’t Mate

Drones only have a 1-in-1,000 chance of mating with a queen, so many drones will not mate and die from the process. Some drones actually survive the mating process.

So, what happens to the drones that don’t die from mating or the ones that never get the chance? They still have a pretty grim future.

Drones that are not able to pass on their genetics – or in a freak turn of events, survive the mating process – are allowed to remain at their hive during the warm seasons. However, when winter approaches and bees must survive the winter on what they have stored, drones become just one more mouth to feed.

At this point, worker bees will round them up and kick them out of the hive. Remember, drones do not have stingers which means they have no defense system and are also incapable of collecting food for themselves. This means they die from cold or starvation.

Though these tiny creatures have such a large impact on the reproduction of bees, their outlook is certainly on the bleak side when it comes to individual survival.

The Real Purpose of a Drone

So, drones have no real purpose beyond mating, essential though that is. Drones do mate with the queen, but they offer something so much more important than simply sperm.

They offer genetic diversity.

Female bees have 32 chromosomes. This means they get 16 chromosomes from their mother and 16 from their father. Drones have 16 chromosomes. Therefore, eggs only have the option of holding half of the queen’s genetics. This is significant because genetics determine how efficiently and effectively a hive runs, as well as being a factor in resistance to disease.

When the queen mates with drones on her mating flight, she benefits from the genetic diversity they offer. Each egg that hatches will be slightly different, based on its genetics. Because of this the colony has a greater potential for success.

The Queen’s Egg Production

The Laying Process

The long-term health of the colony depends greatly upon the queen and her ability to lay eggs. When the queen is young and just starting out, she will lay her eggs in an organized fashion. She lays the eggs right next to each other, in their respective cells. As she gets older she will lay fewer eggs and have a different laying pattern.

In her prime, the queen bee will lay about 2,000 eggs per day. This is more than her own body weight in eggs. The eggs are only about half the size of a grain of rice and take a matter of seconds for her to lay. Beekeepers of a certain age often use a magnifying glass when checking for eggs!

When the eggs are laid there is a strand of mucous used to connect the eggs to the cell. Within a matter of days, the digestive and nervous systems are formed. In about three days the eggs will become larvae. Then the nurse bees will feed them and help them grow into the gender and role for which they were laid.

Bee Larvae Transformed

Three days after the queen lays an egg it will have developed into bee larvae with all major systems starting to be formed. The queen fertilizes, and lays eggs based upon cell size. The larger cells are generally for drones, while the smaller cells are for workers.

Bee Larvae

The fertilized eggs are the female bees (workers and queens) and the non-fertilized eggs are the male bees (drones). After the eggs have turned into bee larvae they are fed royal jelly. For fertilized eggs, the number of days they are fed royal jelly will decide their role as either worker or queen. Bees secrete royal jelly to feed their larvae and queen. Queens are fed royal jelly all the way through their hatching process which is 16 days.

Worker bee and drone larvae are only fed royal jelly for the first 2-3 days, with worker bees taking 21 days to exit the cell and drones 24 days.

How Long Does a Honey Bee Live?

Honey bees live for different lengths of time, depending upon their role in the hive and the time of year they are born. Let’s take a closer look at how these variables can impact the hive.

Drones

Drones do not live very long. Because their main purpose it to breed and spread genetics, they often die early in life, given that the breeding process kills them. If they are alive as the colder months approach, they face eviction from the hive and subsequent death.

Worker Bees

The life span of worker bees varies. If they are born and put to work during the busy season, they might live to around 6 weeks or less. If they are born in a non-peak season, they might survive to 7 weeks old.

Winter bees are different! They have a higher blood protein and a fatter body, meant to produce heat for the queen. Winter bees can live anywhere from 4-6 months, through the winter.

A worker bee will collect honey from foraging bees and act as a nurse bee, tending to the bee larvae. As she gets older she is promoted to foraging bee. This wears her down quickly, as this is very physical work for such a small creature.

Queen Bees

After her mating flights, the queen bee spends her life inside the hive, laying eggs. Her biggest danger is during her mating flights and the possibility of disease. If these threats are avoided, then she can live on for 4 years or more.

Life in the Hive

Pros and Cons of a Large Population Hive

Bees have large hives during the warmer seasons. The reasons for this are simple. The more workers available, the more food can be gathered. The hive will also have greater protection against hive beetles and mites. Additionally, there will be more bees available to help with wax production, which is good for the queen as she prefers to lay in fresh comb.

Within reason, the larger the hive the better the health of the hive. Even as a hive goes into winter, bees know to downsize their numbers, so they won’t have as many mouths to feed during this time. Having a queen that is a great egg-layer is invaluable to the health of her hive.

Planning for winter
Bees downsize as they approach the colder months, so they won’t need as many resources during this time.

Conclusion

The reproduction and life of a honey bee is fascinating. These tiny creatures face so many challenges in their daily lives. Yet, they still share the same common goal: reproduce, create a genetically strong colony and survive.

27 thoughts on “How Honey Bees Reproduce”

  1. Had to laugh, as Gmail decided that the email announcing this lesson was inappropriate and routed it to my spam folder! Ha! Ha! Enjoyed the lesson.

  2. I’m new to this course, and am thoroughly enjoying it. I think I’ll read all the articles in one sitting! Bees are just about the coolest creatures in the world. Shel

  3. This is extremely cool and interesting. I feel very bad for the drone bees though. Your knowledge is incredible. Thank you for making this article.

  4. Your artical is exact on what you are saying about the honey bees. I am a bee keeper for 6 years now, and loosing hives in 2017. Please do articles on nionics and thiamethoxam seed treatment and what there doing to our honey bees.when foragin on soybeans blooms for pollen. We have to let everyone know about thes pesticides. It’s our and the honey bee survival. Thanks

    1. I’m pretty sure that the queen bee continues reproducing during the winter, because up in the article it said something about during the winter, a well egg laying queen is bad for the hive, if I’m correct. So yes, if you want my reply, the queen bee does lay during the winter.

      1. Juliet,

        They don’t raise brood all winter long. There is a period of broodlessness in all hives that starts with the first cold snaps and continues until roughly late January or early February. It is that point that the queen begins a small egg production process and as days warm up approaching spring she slowly ramps up to full production. But, one of the reasons we are assisted by winter with Varroa Mites is because they don’t have capped brood to hide in! Hence why oxalic acid vaporization is so effective in November and December (it is even effective in January as I proved this year!).

        Keith

  5. Great course. 1st year bee keeper. Can never have enough knowledge to keep these ladies alive. Thanks !!

  6. Rick A - Warner

    Always fresh to my mind so many questions that come from these answers. A real joy to read and see the new visuals. Thanks even better this year.

  7. I’ve read a lot on honeybees and continue to be fascinated! Thanks for putting these articles and photos together.

  8. Hi! I am enjoying your articles. Could you please share some information about your homesteading venture? Thanks. Lisa

  9. Fascinating the genetic complexity in a hive and I’m still blown away by 2,000 eggs in a day. Just to think about that is exhausting because that is near constant activity.

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