One at a time, the queen will “dance” with a drone mid-flight since that is the bee way, and in the end, he leaves her with everything he lived for, sperm, and falls to his blissful death. It’s a high-risk, high-reward courtship.
There is no guarantee that she’ll return to the sisters that raised her. If she doesn’t, the colony can’t survive. So, nature has to find a balance between getting her successfully mated and back to the nest safely while maximizing genetic diversity to boost the colony’s survival.
Drones choose the mating venue. They congregate 1 to 3 miles from their colonies. With a queen mating with over a dozen drones, having the fellas gather in one area, called the drone congregation area, helps her maximize her limited mating flight window.
Other factors affect how far she has to go, including weather and the number of drones available. We’ll discuss some of these other factors in the sections below.
Queen Bee Mating Behavior
During the nuptial flight, a virgin queen bee leaves her hive to mate with drones. The queen honey bee may take two or three mating flights and mate several times, ranging from 6 to 26 times.
Drones, the male bees, play a crucial role in the mating process as they compete with each other to mate with a queen bee. These drones congregate at specific gathering places in the air called Drone Congregation Areas (DCA). The DCA is typically located about 1 mile from the nest, 50 to 150 ft above the ground, attracting drones from neighboring colonies.
The Drone Congregation Area is the primary mating site where the queen bee mates with the drones during her mating flights. These areas are usually on the edge of the woods, bottom of a hill, or an opening in an area with dense vegetation.
Factors Affecting Mating Distance
Temperature and weather conditions can impact the mating flight distance of queen bees. Research has shown that queen bees are likelier to take mating flights when the ambient temperature is favorable. The duration of their mating flights may also be influenced by temperature. Wind and rain can determine how far or even if the queen can make her nuptial flights.
Queen bees typically attempt to mate with drones from other colonies to maintain genetic diversity within their hive. Although some queen bees can mate after combined flight distances of up to 15 km, this is not the usual distance they travel. Hive location can influence the distance at which drones are available for mating.
Furthermore, the number and positioning of drone mother colonies concerning the queen bee’s mating apiary also impact the distance traveled. Any beekeeper looking to breed queens, for themselves or sale, is encouraged to include drone-producing colonies in the apiary for this exact reason.
If the queen has certain desirable traits, they can be watered down if the drones she mates with do not share those genetic traits, such as hygiene, which is highly sought after in the fight against varroa. The queen doesn’t select drones with the desired genes. It’s up to the beekeeper to ensure that the area is well-populated with drones that carry the genes selected.
Benefits of Farther Mating Flights
When a queen bee embarks on mating flights, she can fly for several kilometers to meet and mate with multiple drone bees. The distance covered during these flights can be up to 8.3 km. There are several benefits to these farther mating flights, as explored below.
One significant advantage of longer mating flights is increased genetic diversity. By flying farther, the queen bee encounters drones from various colonies, ensuring she mates with a diverse range of partners. This diversity in the mating process leads to a healthier bee colony, as it can effectively adapt to environmental challenges and resist diseases.
Another benefit of longer mating flights is the reduced risk of inbreeding. If the queen bee were to mate only with drones from her colony, it could lead to genetic problems and a weakened colony. By flying further away for her mating flights, the queen bee meets and mates with drones from different colonies, thus lowering the chances of inbreeding.
Risks and Challenges
Predators and Hazards
During a mating flight, a queen bee exposes herself to various risks such as predators and environmental hazards. Birds, wasps, and other insects can have her for lunch, with the queen as the main course.
Weather conditions such as strong winds, rain, or extreme temperatures can keep her from mating or hamper her return to the hive.
Queen bees require a lot of energy to complete their mating flights. They will often make multiple trips as they attempt to mate with numerous drones. The energy expenditure increases with the duration of the flights, as polyandry in queen honey bees prolongs the duration of the nuptial flights.
The queen bee stores the semen from her mating flights for the remainder of her life, which can be two to three years for a long-lived queen. Given the risks and energy expenditure associated with these flights, the queen bee must make the most out of each mating flight to ensure a successful reproductive future for the colony.
In summary, queen bees fly considerable distances during their mating flights. Evidence suggests that queens can travel several kilometers (or at least a mile) depending on the availability of drones for mating purposes.
During this period of polyandry, the duration of nuptial flights is prolonged, increasing costs and risks for queen bees. Despite these challenges, mating flights are an essential part of honeybee reproduction and vital to the hive’s survival and success.
Ultimately, a queen bee’s flight distance and mate-searching behavior depend on various factors, including geography, climate, and the presence of nearby drones.