Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Queen Bee Makes a Mating Flight

The queen bee is responsible for producing all of the eggs for the honey bee colony. Unlike organisms that mate again and again for the production of each offspring, the queen honey bee mates but once for a lifetime of egg laying. This occurs in a series of mating flights which typically occur over a day or two about five or six days after the queen’s emergence as an adult. During these flights, the queen bee will mate in the air with between twelve and twenty drone bees. She will store the sperm from these flights in an internal organ for the length of her life. This sperm will be used to produce fertile eggs to produce either workers or queen bees. She also lays non-fertile eggs to produce drones. By mating with a number of drones, the queen is assured of bringing genetic diversity to the colony’s offspring. Some of those diverse genes may be just the ones needed for the colony to survive in a changing environment.

I happened to be checking the queen mating nucleus hives on the day that a number of young queens were making mating flights. It appeared that the queen from this colony was outside the hive at the time I was checking it. I found no queen in the hive. The bees on every frame appeared to be fanning air with their wings across their raised abdomens. This is done to blow a plume of pheromones out through the air to guide bees to the hive. In this case all of the bees were involved in guiding their queen back home. Click on the photo and see the bees at the top of the hive’s frames posed to fan pheromones. While the bees look disturbed and disorganized, they were actually quite calm. The fanning by the bees shows the importance to the entire colony for the success of the mating flight. I feel like this is the most unique photo that I have taken inside a bee hive.
--Richard

19 comments:

  1. How is genetic diversity maintained? Where do the drones come from with which the queen mates? From other hives? Does the queen mate with her own drones? Are drones always flying around outside the nest seeking foreign queens?

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  2. Genetic diversity is increased by the behaviors that the honey bee evolved over millions of years. First, the queen never mates in the hive. If she did, she would be mating with her drone offspring that have hers same genetic make-up. She mates in flight away from the hive with a number of drones, maybe 12 to 20. The mating occurs in locations called drone concentration areas. The drones from numerous hives fly to the drone concentration areas, and mating usually occurs in the afternoon. Genetic diversity is increased and inbreeding is reduced by the queen’s flying farther to drone concentration areas than do drones. This reduces the probability of her mating with a drone from her own hive. Genetic diversity is of utmost importance for the honey bee to have the genes necessary for survival in a changing environment.
    --Richard

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  3. Thanks Richard. What is the life of a drone like? Does he go out every day to check out the concentration area for possible queens? Say about noon to mate with an afternoon queen? And then return to the hive before nightfall? What's a day in the life of a drone like?

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  4. The drone honey bee has one purpose in life, and that is to mate in flight with a queen bee. The drone does no work in the hive. Young drones do not even feed themselves. Older drones eat honey that they remove from cells. Drones tend to occupy the outside frames of the hive, away from the center of the brood nest. The presence of a fairly large population of drones is thought to contribute to the gentle temperament of the hive.

    Drones fly daily to a drone concentration area where they seek virgin queen bees using sight and pheromones. They return periodically to the hive to eat, and they conclude their flying in the early evening. If they are successful in mating with a queen bee, the act is fatal to the drone. Drones are expelled from the hive by the workers in the fall as cold weather arrives. A new group of drones will be reared in the spring. One of my favorite pictures shows drones in pursuit of purple martins. The drones appear to mistake the birds for queen honey bees. See the picture posted July 26, 2009.
    --Richard

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  5. how high does the queen fly to mate. is there a minimum height that she has go .

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  6. The drone concentration areas where the queen bees mate with drones are spaces in the air which are probably identified to the bees by visual landmarks. The areas are typically 100 yards wide by 200 yards long. They are from 50 to 200 feet above the ground. The bees travel to and from the drone concentration areas along flyways that are somewhat lower, typically 40 to 65 feet above the ground. Since the bees occasionally mate in the flyways, the minimum height for mating would be around 40 feet. A remarkable thing about drone concentration areas is that they exist in the same place from year to year even though the bees that use them do not live from year to year.
    --Richard

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  7. This is my first experience and I would like to know how the queen in the packaged bees is fertile. Is she mated when she arrives or does she mate after we install the bee?

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  8. The queen you receive in a package is already mated. A package of bees should contain a mated, egg-laying queen in a cage. A queen cell is placed in a queen mating nucleus hive by the queen producer. After it emerges in this small hive, it makes one or more mating flights and mates with a number of drones. It returns to the mating nucleus hive and after about two weeks from the time of the queen’s emerging, it starts laying eggs. After the queen is laying eggs, the producer catches her and places her in a cage. The cage is placed in a screened shipping box with about three pounds of bees shaken off the frames of various hives.

    The mated queen is held in the cage for a period of time to allow the bees to detect the pheromones she secretes. By the time the bees have chewed through the candy plug in the queen cage to release the queen, the bees will be organized as a social colony around her pheromones.
    --Richard

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  9. Out of 4 hives in the fall of 2009 I had one good hive spring of 2010. As the hive got stronger I took three large frames of capped brood and honey out and put them in new hive. Within a few days I saw some queen cells. The cells are now open but there is no sign of the queen or new eggs nor are they capping honey. The hive still appears to be strong.

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  10. A queen bee requires 16 days of development from the day a fertile egg is laid until she emerges as an adult. After her emergence, she remains in the hive for five or six days before making a series of mating flights. After mating, her reproductive organs continue to develop; and she usually starts laying eggs in another five or six days. The total time involved for producing a queen that is laying eggs is thus about one month.

    While you are waiting to see worker eggs and brood to let you know that the colony is queen-right, you may want to bring in a frame of open brood from another hive to suppress worker ovary development. This will help prevent the development of laying workers.
    --Richard

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  11. How can I tell if my queen has mated? Please advise.

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  12. You can tell that the queen was successfully mated by observing eggs. The queen should start laying eggs in about two weeks after she emerges as an adult. Once she starts laying eggs, check the hive in a few days to see that she is producing a large pattern of worker brood.

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  13. Well I've been into the hive the last two weekends and I spotted the queen the first Saturday...no eggs the following week. My queen died on or around April 7, and I let the hive requeen itself but now I'm wondering if I should buy a queen since I have no brood and it's been over a month. Please advise.

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  14. If a bee hive sits queenless for over two weeks, some of the workers will start laying infertile eggs which develop into drone bees. The result is a hive that is hopelessly queenless. The beekeeper can suppress the development of working reproductive systems in the worker bees by adding a frame of open brood from another hive. The larvae of the uncapped brood emit pheromones that suppress the workers’ ovary development.

    If I can offer you more specific recommendations, please send an email to peacebeefarm.com. Best wishes
    --Richard

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  15. I attracted a swarm of feral bees and they are currently working hard in their new hive. It's been about five days. I have seen the queen but I cannot determine whether she has mated or not? Since, they are (hopefully) in the process of building comb (we use top bars only) I cannot determine if there are any combs built or if there are any brood. I am reluctant to open and pull frames for examination as they are only fives days in. Is there any other way to know if the queen has mated besides verifying brood?
    Thanks, Chris in Portland, Oregon

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  16. Christopher,
    Typically, swarms have a mated queen, the old queen from the parent colony. Some colonies emit more than one swarm, and the after-swarms may be queenless or have a virgin queen. The only way to tell if the queen is mated is to observe the hive and check for eggs and young, open brood. Please remember that combs hung from top bars only will not have the strength of frames with foundation, so handle carefully while searching for eggs and larvae.

    You can assist the bees in the development of their comb by feeding the hive. Following swarming, bees draw out comb rapidly.
    --Richard

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  17. Richard, really interesting article and I was fascinated to read your comments. I'm just trying to fully get my head round haplodiploidity. I think I pretty much get it. I understand that full sisters share 75% of genetic material as they both share exactly the same 50% with their haploid father and 50% with the queen. A queen mates with 12-20 drones (to maintain genetic diversity) and then stores the sperm for years. So surely only daughters with the same father (approx. 1/20th to 1/12th of workers in the hive) will be related by 75% and the others only 25% (the vast majority)???
    Is it therefore advantageous (evolutionarily speaking) for a female to give up mating because she would share 50% of genes with offspring, but 75% with about 5 to 8 percent of females in hive, which is many more bees than she would ever have offspring. This idea seems odd as it contrasts to what most people say about all workers being related by 75%.

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  18. Nick, to answer this question involving haplodiploidity in honey bees, I called upon an authority on this topic, my friend, Jon Zawislak, apiary instructor with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. I quote him in my blog posting, http://peacebeefarm.blogspot.com/2012/09/honey-bee-super-sisters.html. It appears to me that an evolutionary advantage of haplodiploidity may be in altruistic behavior which individual bees act for the protection of the colony over self. I hope that Jon’s explanation is helpful.
    --Richard

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