Bee Sex: A One-Time Love Affair
When a queen bee is first born and until she takes a mating flight, she is called a virgin queen. The worker bees don't yet recognize her as the queen, and will chase her around the hive, nipping at her, until she takes a mating flight. If it's raining, she'll wait for better weather. If its nice out, she'll fly out of the hive in search of the boys. This flight may be the only time she will ever leave the hive (unless the bees swarm).
New queens are usually born in May and June. By this time of the year, the drones (the male bees) are flying around. Drones from different hives gather together in a drone congregation area sometimes called a drone den about 5 to 35 metres above ground. Here, they fly around waiting for young queen bees. Lots of drones from different hives helps ensure genetic diversity, and reduces the likelihood of a queen mating with her own offspring. The queen is attracted to this area by pheromones and will fly through the area. The chase is on...the queen will fly fast and high, so that only the fittest drones can reach her.
The drones are equipped with very large eyes that are much bigger than those of the female worker bees. Their big eyes help them spot and chase the queen. Drones are bigger than workers and fly with a distinctive 'drone' sound at a lower pitch than the buzz of the female workers. Unlike their sisters, they can't sting because they don't have a stinger.
The mating flight is perilous for the queen - she could get caught in a rain storm or be eaten by a bird before making it back to the hive. While it entails risk for her, it entails certain death for her successful male suitors. The fastest drone catches the queen first, and they mate mid-air. In the process, his reproductive organs are ripped from his body and he plummets to his death. The next drone reaches the queen and before mating he must remove the previous drone's parts. The queen will mate with about 10 to 12 drones on this flight, storing their sperm in a special organ called a spermatheca.
This video from the film More than Honey shows the mating flight:
Once she has mated, she flies back to the hive to assume her royal role...and beekeepers now call her a mated queen. It will take her a few days to start laying eggs, during which her abdomen grows larger, making flight clumsy and difficult. She will now stay exclusively inside the hive. She starts producing queen pheromone and the bees start feeding and grooming her. The fact that she can store sperm allows her to fertilize million of eggs over the course of 3 to 5 years.
The queen can even pick the sex of the eggs that she lays! As she moves through the hive, most of the cells are the right size for female worker bees. When she lays an egg in one of these cells, she'll fertilize the egg making it female. When she encounters cells that are slightly larger and designed for the bigger drone bees, she'll lay an egg without fertilizing it, which makes it a male.
In our next blog article, we'll tell you more about the queen's birth, life, and death.