Honeybee Reproduction, Part I: The Promiscuous Queen Bee

An old queen (as evidenced by her tattered wings) surrounded by her attendants

Did you know that male honeybees have no father, but they do have a grandfather? That any fertilized egg can develop into a worker bee or a queen bee depending on what the hatched larva is fed? That bees feed their young a white, protein rich substance called “royal jelly” secreted from a gland in an adult bee’s head? (We would look pretty funny if our milk glands — our breasts — were on our heads!) Hungry for more? Here we go!

Rather than engage in the age old question of what comes first, the queen bee or the egg, I’m going to begin with the mating act. Male bees are called drones. Much like college-aged human males may be found together in a bar ogling the co-eds and hoping they get lucky, male bees from all the colonies in an area leave the hive every afternoon and gather together in what is called a “drone congregation area.” These areas are reused year after year and seem to be selected with several criteria in mind, including openness, sun, and wind protection. There drones fly around in a space about 30-200 meters wide and 15-40 meters above the ground, waiting for a passing virgin to happen along.

A virgin queen reaches sexual maturity when she is a precocious seven days old. She promptly leaves the nest and goes on a mating flight. No one knows exactly how the virgin queen knows where to go, but she quickly finds the drones and she zips through them, her strong “come hither” pheromone sending the boys in hot pursuit. When a male that she finds satisfactory catches up with her, she allows him to insert his endophallus into her vagina and eject his sperm into her, an act that is accompanied by a “pop” sound that is audible to the human ear as the endophallus literally explodes. The rupture disconnects the drone from the queen, and he falls away to die shortly thereafter. The queen continues on her flight, often mating with 18 or 20 drones in a single afternoon.

Drone endophallus

When the queen returns to her colony, the worker bees that had previously ignored her find her irresistible. They clean her up, remove the vestige of the endophallus from the last drone she mated with, stroke her, feed her, and follow her everywhere. The queen will be cared for by workers, called "attendants," for the rest of her life. It takes three days for the semen she has collected to make its way down the oviduct and into a special chamber called the spermatheca, where she stores the sperm for the duration of her life. The queen can lay for up to five years using sperm stores from only one or two mating flights that occur early in her life.

Honeybee eggs and larvae

When the queen is ready to start laying, she uses her front legs to feel a cell and determine its size. If it is a smaller cell, it is intended for a worker and as the egg passes through she fertilizes it with semen from the spermatheca. If it is a large cell, it is intended for a drone, and in a drone cell the queen deposits an unfertilized egg. Yes, you heard me right — fertilized eggs grow up to be female, and unfertilized eggs grow up to be male! Drones are haploid clones, gaining all of their genetic material from their mother.

A young queen walks over capped brood that will emerge soon

Queens have two jobs in the colony: to lay up to 1,500 eggs per day and to produce a colony-uniting pheromone that lets every bee in the colony recognize by scent every other bee. She does not, however, participate in caring for the thousands of progeny that she brings into the world. Next we’ll talk about what good little mamas worker bees are!

Continue on to read Part II!

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