How do Bees Mate?
The Dangerous Act of Bee Mating
Reading Time: 4 minutes
An interesting and deadly dance takes place all across the world; in fact, it’s necessary for human survival and yet goes unnoticed by humans year after year. The dance is actually the mating ritual of honey bees. So how do bees mate? It’s a fascinating tale!
Not all bee species have the same mating rituals that honeybees do, but of all bee mating practices, the honey bee’s is the most interesting … and deadly.
There are two ways a hive gets a queen bee. The natural way is that the worker bees make a new queen bee by feeding a larva royal jelly until she weaves a cocoon. This is what happens when the queen bee dies and the hive is left without a queen. The workers will also make a new queen bee if they believe their current queen is getting old and is not laying enough eggs.
The second way for a hive to get a new queen is for a beekeeper to purchase a queen and install it into the hive. Many beekeepers do this every year to keep the hive productive. This practice is common in bee farming and is how most large-scale beekeepers operate.
How do Bees Mate?
When the virgin queen bee emerges from her cell, she takes a few days to mature. She needs to let her wings expand and dry, and let her glands mature. When she’s ready, she’ll take her first mating flight.
Wherever there are honey bee hives, there are Buckfast bees and other races of honey bee drones hanging out in drone congregation areas just waiting for a queen to fly by.
Mating is the drone’s only duty, so he waits.
Somehow the new queen knows where to find these drone congregations and she heads straight there. Once she’s there, the mating takes place in the air and with several drones. She needs enough sperm to last a lifetime, which could be as long as five years.
The drone will fly over a queen with the intention of positioning himself such that his thorax is above her abdomen. A drone’s appendage is referred to as an endophallus, which is tucked within his body and inverted simultaneously. He will protrude his endophallus and insert it in the queen’s sting chamber.
The queen will go on several mating flights over the next few days leaving a trail of dead drones in her wake. This helps to diversify the genetics of the hive and keep inbreeding to a minimum. After her mating flights are all complete, she’ll never leave the hive again.
What Happens After Bees Mate?
The queen stores most of the sperm in her oviducts to use immediately. The rest of the sperm is stored in her spermathecal and will be good for up to four years.
When the queen starts laying eggs, that’s what she’ll do for the rest of her life.
The worker bees make cells for her to lay her eggs — horizontal cells for queens, vertical cells for workers and drones. The horizontal cells are only created when the worker bees think the queen needs to be replaced. They make these cells secretly away from where the queen is laying. And the drone cells are larger than the worker cells.
When the queen lays an egg, she decides if it gets fertilized based on the needs of the colony. When she’s filling worker cells, the egg gets fertilized, and when she’s filling drone cells, the egg isn’t fertilized.
This means that the female (worker) bees carry the genetics of both their mother and father. But the drones only carry the genetics of their mother.
Worker bees can also lay eggs but since they don’t go on a mating flight, their eggs are unfertilized so they only produce drones. Queens are the only ones that can produce male and female bees.
The queen continues to lay eggs until all the stored sperm is gone. Once she slows down her egg production, the hive will raise a new queen by creating queen cells and moving female eggs into them. They then feed the larvae royal jelly until they form cocoons. The first queen that emerges finds the other queen cells and destroys them.
Once the new queen comes back from her mating flight, she will be THE queen of the hive. The old queen may leave the hive with some of her subjects. Or the new queen and the workers might just kill the old queen. Rarely, the new queen and old queen will co-exist in the hive, both laying eggs until the old queen naturally dies or is killed. It just depends on what’s best for the hive.
And the cycle begins again.
Everyone in the hive has a duty to perform. The drone’s job is to mate with a queen and spread the hive’s genetics to other hives. He gives his life fulfilling this duty. The queen’s job is to lay eggs and when she can no longer provide the fertilized eggs that the hive needs, she is no longer the priority and a new queen is created. The queen literally lays eggs until she dies.
So, how do bees mate? As if life depends on it …. because it does.