how do bees reproduce

How Do Bees Reproduce?

Bees play an important role in the production of our vegetarian food sources. This is also why it’s essential to understand bee reproduction in order to protect them. Bees don’t reproduce the same way humans or mammals do — so how exactly do they do it?

How Different Bee Species Reproduce

The way bees reproduce is not so different from other similar insects, such as wasps. It somewhat depends on which species, and if they’re eusocial or solitary. The biggest difference, however, is just that solitary females are all fertile, whereas, with the eusocial bees, only the queens can reproduce.

It’s only the males and queens in social bee species that have the organs needed to reproduce. Workers, instead, have an atrophic reproductive system which means that although they’re females, they can’t produce fertilized eggs. They can’t mate with a drone and thus, won’t be able to hold sperm.

Let’s explore this in further detail.

How Do Honeybees Reproduce?

Honeybees are probably one of the most social bee species. Their whole colony acts like an organism, where each bee must play a part to ensure its survival.

Because honeybees are eusocial, it’s only the queens who can mate with drones. After the queen emerges as an adult, she’ll spend a few days in the hive before flying out to mate.

Once she feels ready, she’ll fly to a location known for being a gathering spot for drones. She’ll find this by following chemicals secreted by drones. The males are hovering around in mid-air, where the queen will meet them, individually, in the middle.

A drone soon flies close enough and the mating begins. After mating, the drone’s genitals are ripped from his body and he’ll die shortly after. He’ll leave the cut-off piece inside the queen as a “mating sign,” which the next mate will remove.

The queen will not mourn her lover’s death and is soon getting frisky with another male. She will mate with about 20 to 25 drones, where some might be her brothers. One of the reasons she mates with so many is to ensure that most of them are from other colonies.

She’ll fill up her spermatheca, or sperm pouch, with around 7 million spermatozoa. These will last her a lifetime and she can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day on this stash.

How Do Bumblebees Reproduce?

Bumblebees do it a bit differently. These are also social bees, so again it’s only the queen and drones who will mate.

The males will fly in the air, secreting a chemical meant to attract the females. Their technique, however, varies between species.

Some drones circulate a specific area with a prominent object, such as a tree or large rock. Other males won’t bother; they will simply find a nest containing virgin queens and hover there until the queens emerge.

bumble bees inside some wood
CC Image courtesy of allan_harris

Much like the honeybee drones, bumblebee drones only serve one purpose and that is to mate. Although it’s their sole purpose, only one in seven males gets to reproduce.

As the queen finds her partner, the mating will begin. The two love birds don’t seem to be in a rush. Honeybees mate mid-air, but most bumblebees get frisky on the ground or other surfaces.

This process may take anywhere from 10 to a whopping 80 minutes. It’s rather interesting, seeing as it actually only takes two minutes for all the sperm to reach the queen. The male, however, wants to ensure that he’s the only male she mates with.

After he’s transferred the sperm, he’ll fill the opening with a thick, sticky substance, but this takes time to harden. Once it’s hard, it will block, or at least partially block, the opening, so no other male can inject their sperm.

The bumblebee queen, in contrast to the honeybee queen, will only seek to mate once. There are just two known species that may mate three times. When the mating is over, the male will quickly die.

How Do Carpenter Bees Reproduce?

Carpenter bees are solitary, which essentially means that every female will mate and then find her own nest. The process, however, is rather interesting.

Carpenter bees, much like bumblebees, will usually only mate once. It’s the females who seek out their potential partner, where they’ll generally witness a competition. The males gather in large groups where a few females follow.

Males will hover around the treetops, waiting for the females, before they engage in lekking. This is a mating ritual displayed by some animals and insects, where the males engage in competition to grab the female’s attention. The female has full control over which mate she’ll choose.

carpenter bee

The males do a bobbling dance to impress the females. Once he’s got her attention, he’ll climb on her back and try to push his end under her abdomen.

She must stay in the air for the conception to be successful. If she were to land, the male would likely halt the process. There are, nonetheless, some species who can mate on the ground. The male will cling hard to the female and may even flap his wings in an attempt to get her back in the air.

The males face quite a lot of competition, and it’s usually the larger males who eventually win. Because of this, smaller males sometimes seek out foraging spots or nests where they’ll wait for a female to pass by.

What Happens After Reproduction?

Following the mating rituals, the queens and females will return to their nest, or find a new nest, where they’ll lay their eggs. Honeybee queens will generally return to the hive they emerged from, to take over the former queen’s position. The workers will tend to her and the eggs, and all she’ll do from now on is feed and produce more eggs.

Bumblebees and carpenter bees, on the other hand, will set out to find a suitable nesting place. The bumblebee queen seeks out pre-dug burrows or tunnels under sheds, where she’ll lay her eggs and wait for them to hatch. She’ll secrete a wax-like substance where her eggs will lay and, as soon as they hatch, they’ll take over.

Carpenter bee females must find some wood they can dig into and build their nest. The male will usually follow them and stand guard outside the entrance. Although the males can’t sting, their massive size is enough to scare away potential intruders.

Summary

Bee reproduction is an essential part of the survival of bees. Because bees play such an important part in our ecosystem, it’s vital that we understand as much as possible. Females and queens will mate with males, who’ll die soon after, while the females go on to lay eggs and continue the cycle.

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