Mechanics of Honey Bee Mating

When a virgin queen flies to a site where thousands of male honey bees may be waiting, she mates with several males in flight. A male drone will mount the queen and insert his endophallus, ejaculating semen. After ejaculation, a male honey bee pulls away from the queen, though his endophallus is ripped from his body, remaining attached to the newly fertilized queen.

The next male honey bee to mate with the queen will remove the previous endophallus and eventually lose his own after ejaculation. Male honey bees are only able to mate seven to 10 times during a mating flight, and after mating, a drone dies quickly, as his abdomen rips open when his endophallus is removed. Even drones that survive the mating flight are ejected from their nests, as they have served their sole purpose by mating.

Virgin queens mate early in their lives and only attend one mating flight. After several matings during this flight, a queen stores up to 100 million sperm within her oviducts. However, only five to six million are stored within the queen’s spermatheca. The queen uses only a few of these sperm at a time in order to fertilize eggs throughout her life. If a queen runs out of sperm in her lifetime, new generations of queens will mate and produce their own colonies.

Honey bee queens control the sex of their offspring: as eggs pass through the ovary into the oviduct, a queen can determine whether a particular egg is fertilized or not. Unfertilized eggs become drone honey bees, while fertilized eggs develop into female workers and queens. Female workers do not mate, but they can lay infertile eggs, which in turn become male honey bees.

Queens lay their eggs in structural oval-shaped cells, which stick to the nest ceiling. Worker honey bees fill these cells with royal jelly to prevent larvae from falling. Soon-to-be workers are fed royal jelly during the first two days, while future queens are given royal jelly throughout the entire larval period. The development of each member of a colony differs depending on caste: male honey bees need 24 days for proper growth from eggs to adult, while workers need 21 days and queens require only 16.