It might be a weird subject to read about, (it was even weirder to research) but the reproductive practice of the honey bee is a fascinating thing!
All bees begin life as an egg. Fertilized eggs will grow to be female bees and unfertilized eggs will become drones (male bees). The queen has control over what type of egg she lays (fertilized vs. unfertilized) and does so according to population reports she receives from workers.
Female worker bees can also lay eggs however, because they never mate, their eggs always hatch into drones.
As the eggs hatch into larvae, bees meant to be workers will be fed royal jelly for two days. A bee meant to become a queen will be fed royal jelly for the entire larva stage.
She will pupate in a special cell called a queen cell which is larger and usually created away from the organized pattern of the comb.
After she emerges as a new queen, the young bee will leave the hive to go on her virgin flight.
This flight will lead her to a gathering of thousands of male honey bees waiting to mate. This area is usually “15-40 meters off the ground and 30 – 200 meters wide.” There are so many drones that the buzzing sounds like a swarm.
The drones give off a pheromone to attract queens. The Queen will mate with several drones collecting millions of sperm in her oviducts and spermatheca. This sperm supply will last the duration of her reign and fertilize all the eggs in her hive. The sperm will stay usable for around 4 years. If she runs out of sperm, the workers will kill her and make a new queen.
Bees mate while in flight. The drone inserts the endophallus (penis) into the queen’s sting chamber while in free fall. His endophallus is barbed so the couple will stay together during the flight. Mating takes approximately 5 seconds. After he ejaculates, he is literally blasted from the queen. But unfortunately, the barb that keeps the pair together is responsible for the death of the drone. When the drone pulls away, his barbed unit stays in the queen and rips away from his abdomen usually leading to death for the drone. His one purpose in life has been fulfilled.
A fun fact however…A drone’s ejaculation is so powerful that it can be heard by human ears. So maybe it’s a happy death?
The next drone to mate with the queen will remove the previous drone’s endophallus and the process starts again.
The queen will mate with 10 -20 bees during her flight.
Queens rarely mate with Drones from their own hive. This ensures genetic diversity within the offspring. And produces healthier young.
After the mating flight, the queen returns to her hive. Now that she is fertile, the worker bees begin their job of care-taker very seriously. They remove the endophallus of the last drone she mated with, feed her and clean her.
She immediately begins the cycle again by laying eggs to continue the hive.