What is the Honeybee Queen Mating Flight?

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In a honeybee colony, the queen bee has a very important function that is made possible by her mating flight. Read on to understand what is the honeybee queen mating flight and its benefits to a honeybee colony. Without a mating flight, the queen bee fails in her most important duty which is to lay fertilized eggs in the beehive. Unfertilized eggs result in male drone bees that do not do any work in the beehive. Female bees are called worker bees and they do all the work in the beehive including producing honey and making honeycomb using beeswax. The honeybee queen mating flight is, therefore, very important for the queen to be able to lay fertilized eggs.

The honeybee queen mating flight is an event during which a virgin queen bee mates with several male drone bees. It happens in flight, mid-air. Some beekeepers call a honeybee queen mating flight a nuptial flight. A single queen bee can go on one mating flight and mate with several drone bees, or have several consecutive mating flights in a day or several mating flights over a number of consecutive days.

Drone bees that mate with the queen bee die after ejaculating their sperm. Once a queen bee feels that she is adequately inseminated and starts laying eggs, she usually never mates with drone bees again in her lifetime. She stores sperm from the drone bees in her oviducts and in her spermatheca. There are more sperms in her oviducts than in her spermatheca, with approximately 100 million sperm in the oviducts, and 5-6 million in the spermatheca.

How Many Honeybee Queen Mating Flights Ensure Full Fertilization?

Honeybee queens have options in how they carry out mating flights to ensure that they are fully inseminated. The queen bee can perform a single mating flight and mate with several drones during that flight. If she gets adequately inseminated, she does not need to perform additional mating flights.

Due to some factors, the queen bee may, however, carry out a series of mating flights in a day or two. Beekeepers and researchers have reported observing the queen bee perform up to 6 mating flights.

In the observed and reported instances, she mates with an average of 12 – 14 drone bees for full fertilization to occur. The least number of drones that a queen bee is reported to have mated with is 6 drones, and the highest number is 26 drones.

Taking her mating flights over a period of time or on more than one day, and mating with several drone bees serves a purpose in the life of honeybees. The two occurrences help with:

  1. Ensuring that the queen bee mates with drones of genetic composition that is different from hers.
  2. Promoting genetic diversity of the sperm that the queen bee gets. This prevents inbreeding in honeybees, while promoting hybrid vigor in the species.
  3. Making sure that the queen bee has enough sperm to last her lifetime. If she runs out of sperm during her lifetime, she is replaced with another queen bee in the honeybee colony.

Factors that Influence Honeybee Queen Mating Behavior

There are several determinants of the honeybee queen’s behavior during mating. They impact the number of drones that she mates with, the number of flights that she goes on, and whether she will go for mating on one day or over several consecutive days. Some of the factors are still under research for deeper understanding of how they work. They are:

  1. Number of spermatozoa in the spermatheca. If the queen bee has not built up enough amounts of sperm, she may continue taking additional mating flights.
  2. The number of times that the queen bee has already mated. Queen bees that have mated with a number of drone bees may stop going on mating flights because they feel like they have done enough of the mating activity.
  3. Age of the queen bee. Young virgin queens exhibit more mating behavior and activities than older queen bees that have not yet been mated.
  4. Environmental conditions of wind, temperature and cloud cover. These impact the willingness and ability of the queen bee and drone bees to be out flying. Warmer temperatures trigger the queen bee to take long mating flights that are fewer in number.
  5. The number of available drone bees. When there are many drone bees in a drone congregation area, the queen bee wants to mate with more drone bees for wider genetic variety, and to receive more sperms for her storage and future use.

Some researchers and beekeepers argue that queen bees have no control over the mating behavior, specifically the number of times that they mate. In this line of reasoning, the high number of times that queen bees will mate is a stochastic by-product of honeybee mate availability and mating behavior.

Why do Drone Bees Die after Mating with a Honeybee Queen?

Drone bees that successfully mate with the honeybee queen die soon afterwards. This is a result of physical injury to their bodies. In a male drone bee, the endophallus is located at the end of the abdomen furthest from the head of the drone bee. Drones use the endophallus to inject semen containing sperms into the queen bee’s semen receptacles including her sting chamber.

In each mating event, a single drone ejaculates about 6 million sperm into the queen bee. After the drone bee has ejaculated his sperm into the queen bee, he cannot remove the endophallus from the queen bee’s abdomen section.

When the queen bee and drone bee separate after mating, the stuck endophallus of the drone bee causes the end of the drone bee’s abdomen to tear away from the rest of the abdomen. This is a physical injury to the drone bee which is not recoverable. It ultimately causes the death of the drone bee through loss of body fluids and body organs.

The death of drone bees after mating with queen bees is believed to serve several purposes. First, it ensures that the drone bee cannot keep spreading its genetics around. The honeybee colonies in an area cannot, therefore, have the same or nearly the same genetics. Secondly, the death of the drone bee ensures that it will not mate with its offspring. This prevents inbreeding from occurring in the honeybee species.

Honeybee Queen Mating Flight Process and Activities

Honeybee queen mating flights are carried out by new queen bees. The new queen bees are also called virgin queen bees. A virgin queen is one that is not mated and has recently emerged from her supersedure cell.

The virgin queen bee does not go for mating flights immediately after emerging from her cell. She first moves around the beehive killing other virgin queens that are developing. She stings them to death while they are still in their cells.

If another queen has already emerged, the queen bees fight and sting each other until one of them dies. They may also form splinter groups in the honeybee colony and cause swarming.

Once she is sure that she is the only queen bee in the colony, the virgin queen spends 3-4 days in the beehive drying her wings, feeding and spreading pheromones for her acceptance in the colony.

1. The day of the mating flight

On the day that the virgin queen bee goes on a mating flight, she eats up food for strength and then heads out of the beehive. She performs several short orientation flights so that she can easily find her way back to the beehive when she leaves it. She then flies up to 3 miles to a drone congregation area. This is an area where there are many drone bees flying around. The virgin queen bee finds drone congregation areas by following the trail of pheromones that drone bees release.

A drone congregation area can have 8,000 – 15,000 drone bees present during the best hours of the day. In the drone congregation area, the virgin queen mates with as many drone bees as she needs.

2. How Honeybee Mating Occurs

Honeybee mating happens in the air while both the queen bee and drone bee are flying. The drone bee positions itself with its thorax on top of the queen bee’s abdomen. It mounts the queen bee and protrudes its endophallus which penetrates the queen bee’s abdomen on the underside. The drone ejaculates sperm into the queen bee’s sting chamber. Ejaculated sperms are then drawn into the queen bee’s oviducts and spermatheca.

After ejaculation has occurred, the drone bee pulls away from the queen bee. Its endophallus remains stuck in the underside of the queen bee’s abdomen. This causes some part of the drone bee’s abdomen to tear away.

3. Queen Bees that go on Several Mating Flights

After mating with one drone bee, a queen bee may mate with another drone bee soon after or fly back to her beehive. If she continues mating, drone bees try to remove the stuck endophallus of the drone bee that previously mated with the queen bee from the abdomen of the queen bee before mating with her. Some drone bees are able to remove the endophallus while others are not.

The queen bee may return briefly to her beehive before heading out for another mating flight. If she has an endophallus stuck on her, worker bees quickly remove it from her body before the next mating flight. On average, a honeybee queen mating flight lasts 10-30 minutes.

4. Returning to the Beehive While Fully Mated

When she is fully mated, she returns to her beehive with her honeybee colony. Worker bees receive her at the hive entrance and remove drone bee endophalluses that may be still stuck onto the queen bee’s abdomen. The worker bees also clean the queen bee. They continue taking care of the queen bee for the rest of the queen bee’s time in the beehive. Worker bees clean the queen, feed her and ensure that she is safe.

Queen Bee Life after the Mating Flight

After she has completed mating, the queen bee returns to the beehive that has the honeybee colony from which she came. Worker bees remove any drone body parts from the queen bee, if there are any such parts still stuck to the queen bee’s abdomen. The worker bees then embark of keeping the queen bee well-fed, cleaned and safe.

Queen bees start laying eggs 3-4 days after their final mating flight. Worker bees prepare honeycomb cells called brood cells for the queen bee to lay eggs in the cells. Queen bees lay a fertilized egg in the cells for worker bee brood. If the brood cell is for drone bee production, the queen bee lays an unfertilized egg in that cell. Worker bee brood cells are usually smaller than drone bee brood cells in the beehive.

Beekeepers that use foundation sheets to cause the making of large brood cells, and thus large honeybee sizes, sometimes unwillingly cause the production of too many drone bees in a honeybee colony.

How Long Does a Queen Bee Live?

A queen bee can live for up to 6 years before dying of natural causes. During her lifetime, she lays millions of eggs. In a day, she can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. If she runs out of sperm during her lifetime, she starts laying many unfertilized eggs in the beehive. The unfertilized eggs cause production of large numbers of male drone bees. Worker bees detect this and start raising a new queen bee to replace the failing queen bee.

Once the new queen bee is almost emerging from her cocoon in the supersedure cell, the worker bees of the honeybee colony remove the old queen bee from the beehive. They can cause a split in the colony and subsequent swarming with the old queen bee leaving the beehive, or kill the old queen bee.

In some rare cases, queen bees that have exhausted their stores of sperm, go on mating flights for the second time. This allows the old queen bee to continue laying fertilized eggs. It saves her from being superseded and removed from the beehive.

When supersedure occurs, the new queen bee kills other developing queen bees in their supersedure cells by stinging them through the wax of the cell. This ensures that there is only one queen bee in the beehive for the honeybee colony at a time. After a few days in the beehive, the new queen bee goes on a mating flight.

Conclusion

Honeybee queens are special and useful in the beehive. They are unlike male drone bees that only serve the purpose of fertilizing a queen bee once in their lifetime. Queen bees lay both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs produce worker bees. Unfertilized eggs produce drone bees. A queen can decide whether to lay fertilized eggs or unfertilized eggs. If she is sick and failing, she may lay too many unfertilized eggs. The queen bee of a honeybee colony keeps the sperm she gets after mating within her body. She uses it to fertilize eggs before laying them.

Use the information in this article on what is the honeybee queen mating flight for better management of your beekeeping operation.

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Jorge Murillo-Yepes
Jorge Murillo-Yepes
5 months ago

comment image

DHANANJAY DIVEKAR
DHANANJAY DIVEKAR
5 months ago

Excellent Pic. Thanks. Who is the photographer?

Dave Bonner
Dave Bonner
5 months ago

Really useful information,thankyou

Larry
Larry
5 months ago

Very good and interesting article. However, you fail to cite any of your comments in this article. In uncited articles, such as this, I place very little creedence in your comments.

DHANANJAY DIVEKAR
DHANANJAY DIVEKAR
5 months ago

Very good information. I came to know many new things. Thanks a lot Mating flight is the only flight when guarding bees do not accompany the queen bee. Why so? Any idea how much period does a new vergin queen have to mate?

Ian S.P. Cockburn
Ian S.P. Cockburn
5 months ago

this article has given me a better understanding of the workings of beehives and its colonies. Thank you for such an informative article

Lazy K
Lazy K
5 months ago

So if the old queen swarms with part of the colony, then that split is doomed because they will have no fertile eggs, Right?
Also, why doesn’t the queen kill the New Queen from a swarm cell? How long does a swam cell queen stay in the hive before swarming?

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