Queen Bee Mating

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The Pros And Cons Of Early Season Queen Bees

One of the constants in the world of beekeeping is that most beekeepers prefer to order and receive queen bees as early in the season as possible.  Having access to early season queens means that a beekeeper can divide colonies at the front end of the season, well before the spring honey flow begins in earnest, and well before the risk of swarming gets out of hand.  It also means that winter losses can be recovered quickly; with these new colonies getting an early start to the season with young, vigorous queens.  These young colonies typically have an excellent chance to build up rapidly in advance of the main honey flows.  Young queens are also less likely to swarm, which is another benefit of having an early-season queen prior to the swarming season.

All things being equal, a young queen is better than an old queen, so having young queens in hand as the beekeeping season begins is often an ideal way to get the season off to a good start.

However, with Mother Nature, not all things are equal.

In our current era of adverse climate conditions and high colony losses, counting on early season queens is not always a successful strategy.  First and foremost, because of the relentless trend towards higher annual bee losses, the demand for queen bees in general – and early season queens in particular – far outpaces the supply.  In short, it can be difficult to obtain early season queens, at any price.  Nearly all beekeepers, from the small backyard hobbyist, to the small-scale part-timer, to full commercial operations, and the queen breeders themselves, face high losses that need to be replaced each and every year.  These losses come from various sources, such as pesticides, varroa mites, viruses, nutrition, extreme weather, and increasingly, fire.  Each loss that needs to be replaced requires a new queen bee.  And, unfortunately, most queen breeders cannot produce enough queen bees during the earliest portion of the season to meet this tremendous demand.  Therefore, availability is usually extremely limited, or even non-existent, during the earliest portion of the season.

The availability, and quality, of early season queens is also more greatly affected by weather conditions, unlike queens that are produced later in the year.  Here in Southern California, while our spring and early summer weather is known for generally being sunny and pleasant, the weather in March and April can often be unpredictable, and sometimes downright stormy.  This means that the earliest queens may not always experience the most ideal mating conditions.  Even though early season drones are usually more than plentiful, due to weather, these drones may not be able to fly (or to fly in sufficient numbers) to ensure successful queen mating.  This means that sometimes, in spite of a queen breeder’s best intentions, an early season queen may not have mated as well as a later season queen, who will have experienced ideal weather for her mating flights.

Given these limitations, in recent years, many beekeepers have switched to a strategy of securing queens later in the season, when a large number of high-quality queens are readily available.  Instead of utilizing the early spring for dividing colonies, these beekeepers instead divide colonies later in the season, utilizing the last part of the summer honey flow to divide colonies and make up any losses.

There are several advantages to this strategy.  First, high-quality well-mated queens are usually readily available later in the season, and it is much easier to reliably obtain them.  Second, by not dividing colonies before the first honey flow, a beekeeper can head into the earliest portion of the honey making season with incredibly strong and powerful bee colonies.  A strong colony will nearly always produce more honey than an average colony.

And, finally, when colonies are divided later in the season, these newly created colonies head into the critical autumn season with relatively young and vigorous queens.  These young queens are often very enthusiastic about laying eggs upon their arrival, often resulting in a robust autumn build-up.  This typically ensures that the late summer divides have a near ideal bee population heading into winter, bettering their chances for winter survival.

How Far Does A Queen Bee Fly To Mate?

Even though a queen bee is obviously different from the average worker bee, she maintains all the flying and navigational ability of a worker bee.  This is important because virgin queen bees need to fly to be able to mate outside of the hive.  A virgin queen bee will never mate inside of her own hive as she needs to take flight to mate.  By mating during flight, a queen bee is able to increase the odds that she will mate with drones that did not originate from her own colony, and thereby minimize the chances of inbreeding appearing in the next generation.

After a series of orientation flights, a virgin queen bee sets out for mating somewhere between the 5th and 14th day after her emergence from her queen cell.  From our experience, most of our Wildflower Meadows’ VSH-Italian queens usually mate on the 7th or 8th day after emergence.

A virgin queen does not necessarily take just one mating flight.  Since she typically mates with up to 15 drones, sometimes she requires more than one mating flight to mate with the right number of drones.  A queen bee’s individual mating flight lasts approximately five to thirty minutes, depending on how quickly she encounters drones, and on the weather.  Warmer weather usually means that more drones are flying, so the queen may stay out flying longer if the conditions are favorable.

During a mating flight, a queen bee can fly a considerable distance depending on whether she is able to find drones with which to mate.  Also, the drones themselves are flying between one to three miles from their hives to nearby drone congregation areas where they too are looking for queens.  The queens can also theoretically fly about the same distance when looking for drones.  In theory, that means that a drone can potentially mate with a queen that is 6 miles away!  In actuality, however, on average, most mating flights occur within a mile of the virgin queen’s home colony.  If a queen encounters a drone congregation area right away, the mating can take place very close to the queen’s home colony.  If she cannot find drones, the queen can fly up to the maximum distance while out looking for drones.

Herein lies the answer to our question:  How far does a queen bee fly to mate?  It depends on how quickly she finds drones, or how quickly the drones find her!

At Wildflower Meadows, our number one focus is producing the highest quality VSH-Italian queen bees for sale.  Accordingly, we think a lot about how to create the most ideal mating conditions for our virgin queens.  That includes flooding mating areas with as many drones as possible.  Our drone production colonies are usually spread about a mile apart in various directions from our mating yards.  Our goal is to create a radius of drones around the virgin queens, so that they do not have to fly too far for mating.  Our positioning strategy also ensures that our queens are most likely to mate with our own Wildflower Meadows’ drones of known optimum genetics.

Mini Mating Frame

 

Given that the bees inside of a colony will generally only tolerate one queen, and that queen bees themselves fight amongst each other if they are in the same colony, it is obvious that when raising queen bees, each queen needs to be provided its own separate colony.  It is impossible to raise more than one queen inside of a single colony, as queen bees do not tolerate “roommates.”  Each queen needs her own castle to call home!

This issue quickly becomes a challenge when raising thousands of queens at a time.  If each queen needs her own colony, and the queen producer needs to set up a separate colony for every queen being raised, then this can quickly become a logistical and costly endeavor.  This process could be considered similar to trying to run an army where every soldier needs a separate apartment, and cannot tolerate living with another soldier.

The only reasonable and cost-effective solution to this problem is to set up small-sized and inexpensive colonies, one for each queen that is being raised.

The majority of beekeepers who raise bees in standard Langstroth colonies are familiar with the three sizes of frames available to them, full size (deep), medium size and small size.  These three frame sizes correspond to the three sizes of hive bodies that beekeepers traditionally use, deep hive bodies, medium supers, and shallow supers, respectively.  Nearly all beekeepers who use standard beekeeping equipment use one or more of these sized frames.

The majority of queen producers, however, utilize a fourth size of frame, which is known as a mini-mating frame.  The mini-mating frame is roughly half the size of a shallow frame.  Three of these small mini-mating frames are just large enough to provide a comfortable living space for a small colony, and most importantly, enough space for a queen to lay a good pattern of brood and prove the quality of her mating and genetics.

Given the small size of the frame, a high-quality queen can easily fill a mini-mating frame, such as the frame above, in less than a day.  The mini-mating frame shown above, filled with brood, is proof that this queen bee is ready for sale.  To us, she is “showing off” her talents.  She is more than ready to visit a “real” and full-sized colony and continue her fine brood laying talents for one of Wildflower Meadows’ customers.

The Queen Bee Mating Yard

The apiary pictured above is where a queen bee’s home resides, amidst hundreds of other similarly looking mating nucs; sort of like a monotonous development of tract homes that all look the same. Each queen lives inside her own mating nuc, where she begins her journey into the world with her emergence from a queen cell.  A week or so later she takes flight from her mating nuc into the sky.  If all goes well, after another week or so, she will begin to lay eggs and have the opportunity to prove herself as a quality mated queen bee for sale.

One of the challenges for a queen producer is properly setting up the layout of the mating nucs within the apiary.  One would think that rows of mating nucs, neatly organized in perfect crisp lines, would be the most efficient use of space, and easiest for the beekeeper to manage.  Unfortunately, while this straightforward organization might make perfect sense for the beekeeper, it is not ideal for queen bee rearing.

The problem with long, straight rows is that a queen bee returning from a mating flight needs to easily be able to return to the correct mating nuc when she arrives home from her flight.  If all the nucs are lined up in neat rows, and there are otherwise no distinguishing landmarks to distinguish one part of a row from another, a returning queen can get confused.  Which is the right box?  A mated queen bee that returns to the wrong nuc box could possibly find disaster waiting, with another queen bee already established and ready to fight.  This confusion of queens and foraging bees returning to the wrong home is called “drifting.”  To the conscientious queen breeder, drifting should be avoided.

At Wildflower Meadows, to prevent drifting, we vary the patterns of the mating nucs in a queen bee mating yard (as do most all queen producers).  Sometimes we arrange the mating nucs in curving rows, other times in circles, and other times in various geometric patterns.  This makes it easier for returning queens to quickly get a “read” on the yard from the air, and hopefully find their way home, to the right home, each and every time.

 

Above is a satellite photo of one of our mating yards.  If you were a queen returning home, could you find your way back?

Multiple Mating Flights, Multiple Mates

Until the middle of the 20th Century, scientists believed that queen bees took only one mating flight in their lifetime.  It wasn’t until the 1940’s that a scientist who was studying queen bee mating behavior discovered that queen bees take multiple mating flights.  The scientist (Roberts, 1944) determined that the number of mating flights ranged from one to five.  It took another ten years or so for another scientist (Woke, 1955) to postulate and prove that queen bees not only take multiple mating flights, but also mate with multiple drones during this flights.

We now know that queen bees mate with approximately 10 to 20 drones, typically over the course of several flights.  Why so many flights and drones?  By spreading the mating process both over time and over multiple drones, the queen limits the probability that she will mate with a drone that shares the same sex alleles.  This varied mating program minimizes the chances of inbreeding and maximizes the chances for “hybrid vigor.”