We’ve all seen bees out and about buzzing around in flowers, and you may have even discovered a hive somewhere, but some people have no idea how bees reproduce.
Like everything relating to bees, their reproductive processes are complex and unique. Since there are many different species of bees, they also have different ways of reproducing.
Keep reading to learn all about how different kinds of bee reproduction.
Bee Reproduction in Different Species
When it comes to bee reproduction, there are a couple of different answers depending on the type of bee.
Bees are either social or solitary. These terms describe a lot of how they live their lives, including how they reproduce.
Social bees are species that live in colonies with each other, which allows them to have a division of labor and a more cooperative lifestyle. Solitary bees, on the other hand, don’t live together; instead, each bee does everything necessary to survive and raise offspring.
Most of the thousands of bee species in the world are solitary, with a few notable exceptions.
Social Bee Reproduction
Honeybees and bumblebees are social species.
Social bees that live in colonies rely heavily on each other to keep the hive healthy and functioning smoothly. This means that each individual bee will be assigned specific tasks for maximum efficiency.
As a result, social bee colonies will have a single queen who is responsible for nearly all bee reproduction on her own.
The queen of a bee colony is the only one who is able to have her eggs fertilized and lay eggs that will hatch into female worker bees. Workers make up the majority of the colony, and in colder months, there will only be the queen and her workers.
Worker bees do have eggs, but as they can’t be fertilized, they only hatch into male drones. This is a fascinating aspect of bee genetics, where only female bees require both male and female genetic material.
Often, a sure sign of a colony without a queen is either exclusively drone brood or an excess of eggs in each cell. When a colony is queen-right, her pheromones signal to her workers not to lay any eggs and leave it to her. Without the presence of those pheromones, the workers may begin to lay drone eggs.
A queen is specially made by her colony from a fertilized egg, either because they have lost their queen, removed an ineffective queen, or swarmed. She matures in a long, peanut-shaped cell and is fed royal jelly. She also develops more quickly than either workers or drones.
Once a queen emerges from her cell, she will first seek out any other queen cells and destroy them before they emerge. Then she will need to go on a mating flight to have her eggs fertilized.
This process of bee reproduction can vary a bit between species.
For example, a queen honey bee will fly to a drone congregation area that she is able to locate via pheromones. This is where drones from other colonies gather in search of queens to mate with. A queen will mate mid-air with several drones, who will die almost immediately afterward.
When she returns to her hive, she can begin laying eggs to populate her colony with workers. This is the only time she will need to mate to have thousands of fertilized eggs.
Solitary Bee Reproduction
Most bees are solitary species, most notably mason bees. Unlike social bees, solitary bees are responsible for reproducing as individuals. Each female bee is capable of laying fertilized eggs.
She will use her nesting space to lay her eggs and give them the nutrients they need to develop fully. Rather than tending to the developing larvae, most solitary bees will create a cell for each egg with food inside that’s fully sealed. When the bee inside is ready, it will eventually emerge fully grown.
Typically, males will emerge first and wait for females to arrive. Once females begin to emerge, the male bees will seek them out to mate.
Generally speaking, female solitary bees will mate with one or a few males at most. The males will die afterward, just like in social species of bees.
With her eggs fertilized, the female will then begin to fill her chosen nesting space.
Roles of Male and Female Bees
While both male and female bees are necessary for reproduction, they aren’t created equally. Whether they’re social or solitary, they have very different roles in the reproduction of their species.
Females are by far the most important of the two sexes, especially when it comes to how bees reproduce.
Not only do the females lay the eggs, but they also create spaces for those eggs to give them the best possible chance of survival. Female bees are in charge of making sure their nest or colony is having its needs met. They will defend their hive, gather pollen and nectar, keep their space clean, and so much more.
Male bees, on the other hand, serve one single purpose: providing their genetic material to fertilize eggs. How they fit into the ecosystem varies a bit among different species, but generally, they have no other use than reproduction.
In honey bee colonies, drones are only present in the hive during warmer months. This is because they consume a lot of resources and even have to be fed by female workers. They don’t have stingers, can’t forage for resources, and don’t contribute to the colony in any other way.
When the time is right, male bees will leave the hive to seek out a drone congregation area in the hopes of mating with a queen from another colony. If they’re successful, they will not return to their hive, and their sole purpose has been served. The male bee life cycle is complete.
If drones aren’t able to mate with a queen, they will usually live until they die on their own or are banished from the hive.
Workers will unceremoniously remove them to preserve valuable resources for the more important workers, either during a dearth or as summer winds down. Since they can’t function on their own, they aren’t able to survive outside the hive for long.
Threats to Bee Reproduction
Unfortunately, how bees reproduce is easily interrupted by several different factors.
Climate change and loss of habitat are ongoing problems for bees of all species. All bees have particular requirements for how they reproduce and where they’re able to live, and if anything is too far out of sync, they will struggle or fail to reproduce.
There are also smaller situations that greatly impact bee reproduction.
While it’s very common for people to remove leaves and sticks from their property, these features often provide necessary nesting opportunities for various types of bees.
They will either have nowhere to nest, to begin with, or developing bees won’t make it into adulthood when their nests are disturbed before they’re able to emerge.
Excessive use of pesticides also causes problems for bee reproduction. These treatments aren’t able to distinguish between true pests and helpful insects. This can mean that adult bees and their nests are poisoned.
In the case of social bee species, the journey to and from drone congregation areas can be harrowing for new queens. There is always a risk that she won’t survive the journey. If that happens and her colony doesn’t have any existing fertilized eggs to use, they won’t be able to make a new queen on their own.
The Birds and the Bees
Bee reproduction isn’t just important for each of their species. It’s essential for almost all life on Earth.
Bees are some of our most necessary pollinators, and we all rely on their survival to put food on our tables. Understanding how bees reproduce can help raise awareness and support bee populations all over the world.
If you want to learn even more fascinating facts about bees, check out our honey bees page!