Discussions about human sexuality are sometimes referred to by the euphemism "the birds and the bees." This may sound like a cute and simplistic way of approaching a complex subject. But, the answer to how do bees reproduce is a dramatic story of life and death, of intricate mating patterns, and sophisticated gender determination.
How Do Bees Reproduce?
Bee reproduction is not only a complicated subject, but different species of bees have unique variations of the process. Honeybees follow similar breeding rituals whether they are living in hives of their own creation or in the hives of a beekeeper. The queen, drones, and worker bees all have unique roles to play in the process of conception, gestation, and birth. The life expectancy of each type of bee is determined by its role in the reproduction process and the ongoing life of the hive. Each role is a part of the mystery that answers the question of how do bees reproduce.
The Dramatic Mating Ritual
The first step in how bees reproduce is the mating flight. The queen leaves the hive and enters a congregating area where male drones from a number of hives are awaiting her arrival. Anywhere from 10 to 20 drones will successfully mount the queen in flight and ejaculate their sperm into her stinger chamber where they will work their way to her oviduct and her spermatheca.
This process means numerous sperm are deposited in the queen from a number of different bees with different genetic traits. This dynamic helps to produce a bee population with a variety of characteristics and strengths. This strengthens the health and survival of the hive.
The Development of the Bees
It takes about three days after an egg is placed in a cell of honeycomb for the larva to hatch. The worker bees apply a coating of royal jelly to help the eggs adhere to the cell. They provide food in the form of honey, royal jelly, and other plant material as the larvae develop. It takes a queen larva about 16 days to develop fully. The queen is fed royal jelly by the worker bees throughout that entire time.
It takes worker bees 21 days to mature after their development as larvae, and it takes drones 24 days to mature. These amazing creatures play an essential part in the production of fruits and flowers. Their important work of pollination is also a step in their reproductive cycle. Their ability to make royal jelly and feed the developing larvae depends on the foraging activity of worker bees.
The Role of the Queen Bee
Somewhere between the age of six and sixteen days, after emerging from the cell, the queen bee will make a mating flight. On this flight, she may encounter thousands of male bees or drones and actually will mate with anywhere from 10 to 20 of them. From this one mating flight episode, the queen will collect as many as 100 million sperms. Although she may live four or five years, this will be the only mating flight she makes. She will spend the rest of her life in the hive laying fertilized and unfertilized eggs.
The sperm is stored in the queen's oviduct. Eventually, the volume will be reduced to about five to six million sperm remaining in the spermatheca, where they will continue to fertilize a smaller number of eggs for as long as four or even five years. The young queen produces as many as 2000 eggs a day and will lay them in a highly organized pattern within the hive, placing a single egg in a cell of the honeycomb. As she ages, her production drops, and her laying pattern becomes more random. Each egg is approximately half the size of a grain of rice.
How the Queen Determines the Sex of Bees
It is the queen's role to determine the sex of the bees. Worker bees can also lay eggs, but their eggs will not be fertilized and will only produce male bees or drones. As the queen's eggs move from her ovaries through her oviduct, some will be fertilized by their contact with the spermatheca. The fertilized eggs will become female bees, mostly worker bees, but also possible queens. Many eggs will not be fertilized. These will develop into male bees or drones.
To become a queen bee, the fertilized egg is placed in a vertical cell. The eggs that will become worker bees are placed in horizontal cells. In a natural hive, the queen will place her eggs in an oval-shaped cone on the roof of the hive. In a beekeeper's hive, she usually will place the eggs in a frame in the center of the hive. The worker bees will feed the queen larva royal jelly for the entire time before she emerges from the cell in 16 days. The queen is the star of the drama that answers how do bees reproduce.
Identifying the Queen
An egg placed in a vertical cell is identified as one that will develop into a queen. The other eggs are placed in horizontal cells. The eggs that will produce the queen are fed royal jelly for the full 16 days it takes her to develop.
Worker bee and drone larvae are fed a diet of pollen, bee bread, or other plant material until they are fully developed. The worker bees take care of these feeding schedules because they know which cells contain the eggs of a queen and which are worker bees and drones.
The Queen's Life Expectancy
The queen holds the sperm in her spermatheca throughout her life. As she ages, there are fewer sperm remaining. Her egg laying numbers will diminish. The worker bees will observe this phenomenon and monitor her fertility. The health of the hive depends on a fertile queen. When her production drops, it is time for a new queen.
The worker bees will smother an aging queen to make room for a new queen in the hive. While other bees' lifespans are measured in days or weeks, a queen can live four or even five years. The general health condition of the bee population in the hive, as well as environmental and weather conditions that have impacted the hive all, can contribute to the need to replace the queen.
The Work of the Drones
Drones can play a role in helping maintain the right temperature in the hive, but their primary mission is depositing their sperm in the sting chamber of the queen during the mating flight. If the queen's sting chamber is closed, the drone may ejaculate his sperm to no effect. If he is successful in placing his sperm in the chamber, he will experience a dramatic and sudden end of his life.
The sperm moves so forcefully through the sting chamber into the oviduct of the queen bee that the intensity of this experience causes the drone's endophallus to rip off. It also rips open his stomach resulting in his immediate death. His role is essential to answer the question of how do bees reproduce
Drones Travel to Congregating Areas
Drones will leave their hive and travel to central congregating areas to participate in the mating ritual. These areas are used year after year. Scientists are not sure how the drones know how to find these areas. It may be that they are drawn to the areas as if by a magnet.
The drones do experience an increase in magnetite in their abdomens at the age of about six days. Hundreds and even thousands of drones may occupy a congregating area waiting for the appearance of a queen.
Success Means Instant Death for the Drones
The drones that are successful in depositing their sperm in the stinger chamber almost always die in the process. Others who may expel sperm unsuccessfully will not suffer that same fate. But, they won't live long. Their role is primarily reproductive.
In cold climates, they may help to keep the hive warm. When they are not needed for this function, they will be expelled from the hive to die.
How the Worker Bees Help Reproduction
The worker bees are female bees. They can lay eggs but these eggs will only produce drones or male bees. It is their job to provide the royal jelly that nourishes the eggs laid by the queen. Young worker bees serve as nurse bees in the hive, nourishing the larvae, and collecting honey from other worker bees whose primary job is foraging. As they age, their role includes cleaning out the cells after the larvae have developed into bees. They also move into the more physically demanding work of foraging.
Worker bees typically live six to seven weeks in the spring and summer months. Winter worker bees live slightly longer because they tend to have larger bodies and more reserve strength. In cold conditions, the worker bees help to maintain warmth in the hive to protect the queen. These same bees will expel drones from the hive before winter sets in to control the food demands in the hive.
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How do bees reproduce? The answer is a combination of amazing mating dynamics, unique and specific roles in the bee colony, and built-in intelligence that assures the continued growth and stability of the hive population.