WARNING: I try to keep this blog kid friendly, but this post may not be suitable for young ears. It’s also probably not suitable for anyone with a mature sense of humor.
We are continuing our discussion of how honey bees get it on. In Part One, I covered honey bee genders. Now we’re going to hear about the really freaky stuff.
Stay tuned for part three, in which I’ll discuss how baby bees develop (puberty, for bees!). In Part Four, if you last that long, we’ll discuss how the colony as a super-organism reproduces. So here we go:
Part 2 The Kinky Stuff
When a new queen hatches she takes about a week to “harden” (her shell is a little soft when she first hatches, it takes a little while to dry out and become stronger.) Virgin queens are smaller than mated queens, and that can make them hard to distinguish from a worker bee, but even at a young age she emits a special pheromone, called “queen substance”, which keeps the workers in the hive at ease – they can smell that there’s a queen in charge.
Those same pheromones help her out when she goes out on her “nuptial flights” . Which is a creepy euphemism for “freaky mid-air sex parties”. After hardening off, the queen will go on several nuptial flights over the course of a few weeks. She flies nearly two miles high and several miles in any direction. This helps her avoid mating with drones from her own colony, which are basically her brothers. Ew. The queen will fly around as fast as she can, so only the toughest, most badass drones will be able to keep up.
So here’s where it gets weird: When a drone finally catches up to a likely queen, he mounts her, and inserts his penis into her reproductive tract (hot, right?). The honey bee penis is really crazy looking, and you can think of it sort of like an adapted form of the worker bee’s stinger. Did you know honey bees die when they sting you? It’s because the stinger is barbed, and once a bee inserts it, it will tear off of her body, taking a small collection of organs (collectively referred to as the “sting”) which can then pump venom into the target for up to a minute after detachment.
The same thing happens when honey bees get down, only instead of a stinger, it’s the drone’s weewee, and instead of venom, it’s sperm. Long story short, the male inserts his penis and ejaculates so hard that his penis explodes. He dies, and consequently drops to the ground, and the queen flies on to mate with more (un)lucky fellows.
The queen will mate with up to twenty drones during her nuptial flights, and all of that sperm gets stored in a small organ called a spermatheca, where the sperm can stay alive for several years. She basically has her own personal sperm bank, which she can access for the rest of her life.
This is cool, because now she can fertilize her own eggs. Because all worker bees are made with an egg from the queen and a sperm from one of the drones that the queen mated with during her nuptial flights, all the workers in the colony will be sisters or half-sisters. This allows for genetic diversity within a colony, which can be a matter of life and death when the colony faces evolutionary stress (thanks Darwin!).
That’s why, for beekeepers, a queen being well mated is just as important as her lineage. Even if she’s from fancy stock, If she goes out and bones some loser, that poor-quality sperm will be producing poor-quality workers in the colony for years to come. The queen only mates during those initial mating flights, so it’s also important that she gains a significant supply of sperm. If she were to run out, she would be unable to produce any more worker brood, and it wouldn’t take long for the workers to notice that something’s wrong and stage a coup.
Now that our Queen has gotten her freak on, it’s time to get back to the hive and start laying. We’ll hear all about how an egg becomes a bee in the next installment of “The Birds and the Bees for Bees, A guide to honey bee sex”.