two honeybees on a yellow flower

How Do Bees Mate? A Dangerous Dance

Have you ever wondered how bees mate and reproduce in such large numbers?

Look no further, we’ve created a detailed guide to help you understand how common bee species increase their population.

From queen honey bees and the drones they mate with to furrier varieties of bumblebees and their mating rituals, we’ll take a closer look at the fascinating and sometimes deadly process of bee mating and reproduction.

So how do different bee species mate?

So to truly answer the question ‘how do bees mate’, let’s take a look at how some of the most common species of bee reproduce, looking carefully at varying biology and practice.

Honey bee reproduction

Honeybee colonies reproduce when a mature virgin queen mates with male drone bees from other hives.

The queen flies away from her nest on a ‘mating flight’ in search of large drone congregations that will provide her with as much sperm as she can carry.

This semen will allow her to fertilize eggs for the rest of her life, raising an entire colony of honey bees.

Male drones mate with the queen using their endophallus which extends outwards from their abdomen while mating.

This process will occur up to 20 times until the queen’s oviducts are full of enough sperm.

The queen stores any excess in the spermathecal (a special ectodermal organ used for storing semen).

This single flight will allow the queen to lay enough eggs to ensure the survival of the colony.

Sadly mating has some catastrophic effects for drones with the endophallus normally being torn away from the body after mating leading to death.

Not all eggs are fertilised by the queen, unfertilized eggs go on to produce drones while fertilised female eggs can produce either female workers or new queens (when fed a diet consisting of Royal Jelly).

Female worker bees spend their day either gathering resources or tending to young larvae. 

The ratio of drones, workers and queens will be decided by the needs of the colony and in cases where the queen becomes unable to fertilise eggs, workers will begin to raise new queens to supersede her reign.

As winter arrives all of the bees will begin to cluster around the queen to ensure her survival and as spring arrives the queen is the only colony member left to emerge.

She will now be tasked with repeating the cycle and taking on the responsibility of honeybee reproduction.

Bumble bee reproduction

A bumble bee’s reproductive cycle begins in early spring when queens that have been hibernating for the winter begin to emerge with rising temperatures.

With her fat reserves depleted from the winter, she must first set about feeding herself a nectar-rich diet to raise her energy levels.

When she’s happily fed she begins one of her most important roles, finding a new nest site to lay eggs. This can include:

  • Small holes in the ground
  • Fallen trees
  • Long grass
  • Man-made structures
  • Anywhere that provides a small entrance and shelter from the elements

Using nearby resources she’ll start to prepare the nest with pollen and wax which will form a home for her newly hatched eggs

She’ll also collect a reservoir of pollen to keep her well-fed while she sits on her eggs to keep them nice and warm before hatching.

Egg production in the early summer is focused solely on producing female worker bees  

As summer comes to an end, the reproductive process switches to focus on ensuring the colony’s survival.

The current queen will start to produce a combination of virgin queen bees and male drone bees.

The male drone bumble bee leaves the nest as soon as it reaches maturity and never returns. The rest of its short life is spent either gathering nectar for energy or using it trying to mate with a new queen bee.

Queens will leave shortly after male drones but unlike their male counterparts, they have an important role to play after mating.

When mating male bumble bees will forcefully knock a female queen bumble bee from mid-flight to the ground to mount her thorax and mate with her.

It’s common for males to compete to reproduce and sadly the majority of male bumble bees will expire without ever having had the chance.

Once a bumble bee queen has mated successfully she’ll gorge herself on nectar and pollen to begin building up excess fat for the cold winter to come.

At this point, the old queen and any remaining inhabitants of the old colony will begin to expire leaving the young queen solely responsible for bumblebee reproduction the following spring.

Carpenter bees reproduction

Carpenter bee reproduction starts when a group of male and female carpenter bees begin a ‘bobbing’ dance. This will normally contain approximately 12 males and 4 females.

Once the dance is complete the females will take to the air with the males following closely behind. The males will attempt to mate with the females with the final goal being to position their abdomen directly above that of the females by climbing onto her back mid-flight.

Learn more about the Carpenter bee lifecycle.

Burrowing bee reproduction

Male bees will wait in large numbers at the entrance to the female nest. When the female burrowing bee emerges the males will fight to the death for the opportunity to mate with the female.

Male burrowing bees outnumber female bees 100/1 so the battle that ensues can lead to huge losses. The video below shows the fascinating but deadly mating ritual…

Conclusion

Now you’ve got a great understanding of how different bee species reproduce and their many different mating rituals.

The reproduction of bees is essential to large swathes of plant and animal life across our planet. Without bees, many of our plants would struggle to pollinate and food sources would be severely affected.

If you want to learn more about the fascinating world of bees then don’t miss our other fascinating journies into the hive below. 

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