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Varroa Mite: Life Cycle & Reproduction

Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

If you are interested in parasites, or even just in bees or bee-keeping, check out this lesson. We will cover the life cycle and reproduction habits of one of the honey bee's most serious enemies.

What is the Varroa Mite?

Did you know that a tiny but powerful parasite can cause major deformities in bees and can even result in the complete destruction of entire hives? The culprit? The Varroa mite - a parasitic insect that lives off of bees.

The Varroa mite
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Now we all know the importance of bees in the world, so we never want to see their decline. One species of this little critter is actually named after its damaging effects, called Varroa destructor.

These tiny creatures hitchhike on the body of honeybees and can even travel between hives. One of the most common deformities they caused is the devastating deformed wing virus, which renders a bee (the host) unable to fly.

Let's take a closer look at the Varroa mite's life cycle and reproduction.

Life Cycle

The Varroa mite reproduces and feeds on honey bees. Their entire life cycle is dependent on their host.

Phoretic Stage

The first stage is the phoretic stage, when female mites hitch a ride on adult bees. A bit like a bee vampire, their sole source of food is bee hemolymph, which is basically bee blood. This stage goes on for 5-11 days, that is, if the bees are having babies in the hive right then. If they aren't, this stage can go on for 5-6 months, especially in cold climates.

Varroa mite on a bee
VarroaParasite

The female mite is also known for moving between bees. As she is a vector for various viruses, this can spread disease within the colony. Female mites even travel to different colonies, perhaps by falling off into a flower and then attaching to a new visiting bee.

Reproductive Stage

The reproductive stage is when the female lays eggs inside of a bee hive. She will lay them in a brood cell, a single 'room' inside the bee comb where a larva is feeding. Mites seem to prefer to use drones over worker bees, as their brood cycle is longer and thus gives the baby mites more time to develop.

Female mites lay around five eggs inside of the brood cell after it has been capped. She lays in intervals of 30 hours at a time. She will lay an unfertilized egg with a single set of chromosomes (haploid), which results in a male. Then she will surround it with fertilized eggs that have two sets of chromosomes (diploid), which will result in females.

The eggs are around 0.5 millimeters, are clear or white, and are sometimes laid on the cell walls or even directly on the honey bee larva. When the eggs hatch, they go through two larval stages:

  1. Protonymph stage - the mites grow considerably and the males and females look the same from the exterior. They both have round bodies instead of oval ones.
  2. The mite then molts and begins the deutonymph phase - the final phase before becoming an adult. Females grow considerably larger. Once the mite completes the deutonymph phase, it is considered sexually mature and able to reproduce. Males take around 5-6 days and females take 7-8 days to develop from larva to adult.

They mate within the brood cell itself. The mating process takes place when the male places his sperm into the female's genital tract with his mouth.

Within 2 weeks, the females are laying eggs of their own. Males never leave the brood cells that they hatch inside of. Because the male's mouth parts are only used for reproduction, he will die shortly after mating. As the pregnant females develop, they feed on the larvae, but are careful to not kill them.

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