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How Do Bees Reproduce?

30 June 2020
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Bee reproduction is a complex process with requires forward planning and teamwork on a grand scale. The process requires help from all the bees in the hive to ensure the species' survival.

This delicate dance of life is essential to crop pollination globally and is responsible for 75% of pollination in the United Kingdom. Honeybees are integral to our way of life today and it would be odd not to ask 'Why Do Bees Reproduce?'.

How do bees reproduce

Honeybee queens will fly up to 70ft into the air to mate with male drones from other hives and collect sperm. Back at the hive she will lay either fertilised or unfertilised eggs into prepared receptacles.

The eggs are nurtured by female worker bees before maturing into female (fertilised) or male (unfertilised) bees.

To truly understand honeybee reproduction you must first learn about the three types of the honeybee.

Honeybee queens are female and are responsible for laying and fertilising eggs within the hive.

As the matriarch of any hive, she is essential to its survival and plays a key role in continuing the species.

The worker bee is also female but lacks the reproductive capabilities of the queen. She can lay eggs but is unable to fertilise them and can therefore only produce drones. 

The backbone of the hive she is responsible for most of the work. Collecting pollen and nectar, feeding the larvae drones and queen and creating wax amongst others.

Drone bees are always male and their primary function is to mate with a queen. However, they do have the added benefit of maintaining the hive temperature.

the anatomy of a queen bee

Honeybee queens are equipped with a fascinating reproductive system.

Unlike many other animals and insects, they have control over elements of the reproductive system.

They can choose to lay one of two kinds of eggs, a fertilised Diploid egg (female) or an unfertilised Haploid egg (male).

To begin the process of laying and fertilising eggs the queen must first gather sperm from male drone bees.

Completing this task is made simple by a part of the queen bee's body called the Spermetecha. Once she has mated she can store the collected sperm here and use it to grow her hive when she returns.

The queen and the drones

On sunny warm days, male drones will take to the skies from various hives.

They will travel to a specific location at 20ft in the sky. A honeybee queen will arrive at the location and proceed to mate with the male drones. A honeybee queen will normally mate with between 15 and 20 drone bees.

Her goal is to collect as much sperm as possible to take back to the hive.

There is an added benefit in drones from many hives gathering in one location.

This ensures that a honeybee queen will mate with drones from other hives. As with many insects and animals, it is essential they mate outside of their heritage.

Male drone bees will mate with the honeybee queen one at a time. When a male drone bee mates with a queen he will fly over her with the ultimate goal of placing his thorax slightly above her abdomen.

A male bee's reproductive organ is called an Endophallus which is normally tucked safely inside his body.

When mating the Endophallus will extend allowing the male bee to place it inside the queen's sting chamber.

The actual process of mating only takes around five seconds.

The queen bee will move on to mate with the next available male.

It doesn't end so well for the drone bee. His Endophallus is torn off after the act of mating which in the majority of cases will end the life of the drone.

Laying eggs

A healthy queen can lay up to 20,000 eggs from spring to summer.

The location of the egg has a huge bearing on its sex. Vertical cells within the honeycomb will house future queens and will be much larger in size.

Horizontal cells will be used to develop drone or worker bees to maturity.

This fascinating process is a finely tuned symbiosis between the queen and the worker bees ensuring the correct structure is ready when required.

It's worth noting that in the queen's earlier days she will lay eggs in a structured manner. Laying egg after egg in neighbouring receptacles like clockwork.

As time passes and the queen ages, she will begin to miss holes in the honeycomb and her production speed will drop. This normally leads to a gap between each egg and then two etc.

At peak performance, a honeybee queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs in a single day a truly amazing feat.

The early life of the honey bee

After the queen has laid her eggs her care for them is complete, and she moves on to lay more.

The task of rearing and nurturing these eggs to mature bees is left to the worker bees within the hive, as well as feeding the drones and queen.

After 3 days the egg will become larvae and the worker bee's job begins.

Worker bees have glands inside their head that can produce two different types of food. In both cases, this is a creamy white substance with high sugar content.

The two forms of food are called 'Worker Jelly' and 'Royal Jelly' with the latter being considerably thicker and rich in sugars.

Now, remember the diploid and the haploid eggs that I talked about earlier. That will dictate the sex of the larvae that will appear and it's the diet going forward.

All larvae are put on a diet of exclusively royal jelly for the first 2 to 3 days of their life.

After this period only queens will continue to be fed a diet of 'Royal Jelly' with drones and worker bees being fed the less nutritious 'Worker Jelly'.

A queen larvae will eat 15 to 20 times the amount of jelly compared to normal larvae.

The worker bees will only decide to feed female larvae a diet of strictly 'Royal Jelly' when there are too many bees for the hive to accommodate.

In these cases, the original queen will sense that a new queen is being reared to take her place and will prepare to take flight.

How long does it take for a honeybee to grow

The honeybee goes through several stages as it matures and the amount of time required to reach maturity varies.

Female larvae fed on a diet of 'Royal Jelly' will hatch in around 16 days due to the extra nutrients and vast amounts of jelly they are fed. Worker bees take approximately 21 days to reach full maturity closely followed by drones at 24 days.

After three days, the outer layer of the egg will melt away becoming a form of nourishment for the exposed larvae. For the next five days, the larvae will feed and grow aided constantly by the ever-present worker bees.

The larvae will be checked every fifteen minutes like clockwork to see if they need feeding. Even in cases where the larvae do not need immediate sustenance, the worker bees will deposit jelly close to the mouth of the larvae for when it is required.

At this stage, the anatomy of the larvae is incredibly simple.

Made up of just a digestive tract, stomach and rectum.

This is matched with two small structures in the head area known as Coppa Allata that act as a brain for the larvae.

Once five days have passed and the larvae are well fed and nourished the next step of the process begins. The larvae are capped inside the honeycomb using wax produced by the worker bees.

This is produced within the worker bee and forms small flakes of wax on the abdomen of the bee.

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