The honey bee reproduction process is not as straightforward as other creatures’. Honey bees are made up of two sexes. However, 99% of female bees never reproduce. Bee reproduction is only possible when a queen bee and a male bee mate.
The only exception to this rule is a single isolated population of honey bees living in the southern Cape of Africa. These honeybees have evolved to the point where they no longer need sperm from male drones to lay eggs; rather, the female worker bees fertilize their eggs with their own DNA.
These female worker bees can invade foreign nests and reproduce in this way, essentially taking them over. This behaviour is called “social parasitism.”
Do All Bees Have a Reproductive System?
A bee’s reproductive systems fall into one of three categories:
- Worker bee: Worker bees are female bees. They have a reproductive system that includes a set of ovaries. However, the system stays dormant. Most worker bees do not develop eggs.
- Drone bee: Drone bees are male bees. They have working reproductive systems tucked into their bodies.
- Queen bee: Queen bees populate and grow hives. A queen’s reproductive system is fully developed with working ovaries. After a mating flight, she can lay a couple hundred thousand eggs throughout her lifetime.
All honey bees have a reproductive system, but only queen and drone bees have productive ones.
What Is the Atrophic Reproductive System?
Atrophic reproductive systems are sex organs that are not fully developed. This is the type of system that a worker bee has.
How Do Female Honey Bee Larvae Either Develop Or Don't Develop A Reproductive System?
Honey bees set aside a certain amount of female larvae to become potential queens. The prospective queen larvae are fed different foods than normal larvae.
This special diet helps queen bees develop specific pheromones and hormones. The presence of a queen bee’s pheromones further suppresses the development of other female bees’ ovaries.
Which Part of the Year Do Honey Bees Reproduce?
Queen bees can lay eggs all year, although egg-laying may decrease during colder months.
At the same time, the hive population declines. The winter months mean that honey production comes to a halt. This limited supply causes older bees to die. Additionally, hives will kick drone bees out so that there will be enough food for the queen, workers, and new larvae.
Spring brings a new generation of young bees. Queens can reign for a couple of years, but workers will prepare a group of female larvae so that a next-in-line can become available.
A new queen bee will mate between spring and summer when the weather is warm.
How Do Honey Bees Mate?
Honey bees mate in the air, about 20 feet from the ground. Other bee species mate closer to the ground and on top of plants. Mating in the air allows the queen bee to access multiple partners. It also induces a competitive chase between drones for the queen’s attention.
A virgin queen bee can be about a week old when she goes out to mate. She prepares for her mating flight beginning the moment she hatches, even having to fight other potential queens to claim her throne. A virgin queen bee takes a couple of test flights to strengthen her wings. This strength is necessary for her to be able to fly with the weight of a male drone on her body during her mating flight.
When ready, the queen bee makes her way to the ‘drone congregation’ area, which is where drones gather in the air to wait for a queen bee. These areas are not far from hives, and you may see multiple within a 2-3 mile radius. Queen bees are more likely to travel to a drone congregation area further away from their hives. This ensures gene mixing. Drones will also hop from one area to another.
Queen bees mate with at least a dozen drones. Mating with one drone takes a few seconds and each mating flight can go on for 20 to 30 minutes. Warmer weather will prompt queen bees to embark on longer mating flights. Over the course of a few mating flights, she may mate with 40 or 50 drones, and never the same drone twice.
What Happens to the Drone After Mating?
There are two ways a drone ends life: They are either kicked out of a hive after unsuccessful mating attempts, or they die after they successfully mate. They don’t live long enough to consider which may be the preferable option.
The drone’s reproductive tract turns inside out during mating. This leaves a drone’s penis inside of the queen bee. The penis has to detach from the drone’s body in order for a successful mating session. This emasculation of the drone bee tears his body apart and kills him.
What Is Referred to as the “Mating Sign?”
A mating sign is the remnant of a drone’s reproductive parts in the queen bee’s body. Other drone partners will try to remove another drone’s mating sign when it’s their turn with the queen.
Caste Determination is called Sociogenomics. This is how honey bee colonies keep a caste system. The caste primarily refers to the queen and worker bees. These two roles can come from the same kind of egg but are altered by environmental factors the bees induce.
In What Weather Conditions Do Honey Bees Mate?
The temperature does not have to be perfect for mating, but it does have to be warm as honey bees are sensitive to the cold. They mate well in comfortable temperatures without the presence of rain or wind.
How Many Spermatozoa Are Produced From Mating?
One drone can produce up to 12 million spermatozoa in a mating session. The drone’s mating sign stays in the queen bee for maximum sperm transfer. Even with these efforts, only 10% of a drone’s sperm makes its way into storage.
The majority of that 10% doesn’t make it to the queen’s storage sac. However, multiple drones can provide enough sperm for a queen bee to fertilize eggs her entire life.
Where Does The Queen Store The Spermatozoon?
The spermatheca is a sphere in the queen bee’s reproductive system that stores sperm.
Spermathecal in virgin queens are translucent and may look like a droplet of water or a marble. A mated queen will have spermathecas that are full and are a milky white colour.
How Does The Queen Bee Keep The Spermatozoa Alive?
All a honey bee queen needs is a healthy hive, good honey, and a warm home. The worker bees do their best to keep hives well-ventilated. They can regulate the hive temperature so that it is neither too hot nor too cold. The right amount of warmth keeps the queen bee’s stored sperm healthy.
Unfortunately, recent discoveries revealed that human-made factors are hindering these efforts. Pesticides and extreme weather may be responsible for the decline in spermatozoa health.
How Many Kinds of Eggs Can a Queen Bee Lay?
There are two kinds of eggs that a queen bee lays:
- Unfertilized eggs: These are eggs the queen bee produces without releasing sperm—unfertilized eggs birth male larvae, which become drone bees.
- Fertilized eggs: Fertilized eggs produce female larvae.
The role of the sperm is crucial for hives to stay populated with a sufficient number of worker bees, which are always female.
How Does the Queen Bee Decide Whether to Fertilize the Egg?
The queen bee and worker bees both take part in maintaining the right male-to-female balance among eggs.
Worker bees are responsible for building honeycomb cells. This is where a queen bee lays her eggs. Some cells are intentionally built larger than others. The queen bee will decide to lay drone eggs in the larger cells and fertilized eggs in the others.
However, queen bees may not be blindly making fertilization decisions solely based on cell sizes. Experiments have revealed that queen bees forced to lay only fertilized eggs in small cells will make up for the lack of drone eggs once they have access to sufficient cells.
What Will Determine Whether a Fertilized Egg Will Develop Into a Worker or Queen Bee?
There are a few steps that lead to a new generation of potential queen bees:
- Selection: Worker bees select a number of female larvae and move them into special holding cells.
- Feeding: Bees will feed potential queen larvae royal jelly. This alternative food comes from worker bees’ glands. Royal jelly is fed directly to the larvae. Worker bee larvae are not fed as much royal jelly as potential queen larvae.
- Worker feed: The major difference between queen larvae food and worker larvae food is the presence of phenolic acids. Phenolic acids are only present in the food fed to worker larvae. This compound suppresses ovary growth and thus makes the bee a worker.
Who knew that honey bees carried such a complex caste system? Every detail of a hive’s activity is significant to the survival of this species.
Do Bumble Bees Mate Differently Than Honeybees?
Bumblebee sociogenomics is similar to that of honeybees’. The way they mate, however, is slightly different.
Bumblebees mate closer to the ground, and queens mate with fewer drones. While honey bee mating sessions are a few seconds each, a bumblebee drone may spend a few minutes to an hour with a queen while mating.