Queen bees are amazing creatures. They have a lifetime many times greater than their worker daughters—2 to 5 years depending on the conditions of the hive. They only sting once in their lifetimes, and that is to eliminate their competition (potential rival queens) before they’ve even hatched from their queen cells. Otherwise, they each spearhead their own colony with a quiet, peaceful grace, leaving the protection and darkness of the hive just a handful of times. One of those times is for the virgin mating flight.
1. The mating flight is one of two times the queen bee leaves the hive
The queen only leaves the hive for two reasons. The first time is for her maiden mating flight, and the only other time is if the colony swarms. About a week after she hatches and successfully eliminates the other queen hatchlings in their cells using her stinger, is the new queen embarks on her mating flight.
During this journey, the queen flies to what beekeepers call a “drone congregation area” (or DCA if we’re being cryptic about it). The DCA is located about 1/12 to 1 mile high in the air, and, as the name suggests, is where drones from various neighboring colonies congregate and wait for queens. The majority of queens only make this flight once; however, some have been known to go back out to a DCA to mate again.
2. The queen bee mates with 10 to 15 drones—in the air!
The queen’s main role in the honeybee hive is to lay eggs and mother each new generation of bees. A colony’s success is in large part attributed to its numbers. In order to do that, the queen must fill her spermatheca, the sac where she holds the drone’s sperm, with as much genetic material from her male counterparts as possible. The more drones she mates with, the more varied the genetics of the hive, and the stronger they will be. Once the virgin queen arrives at the DCA, she mates with as many as 15 drones, if she’s very lucky. The entire flight and mating process takes anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, though it is not without significant risk to her life.
3. The drones die after mating.
While a female worker honeybee dies upon stinging a potential threat (the stinger being torn from her abdomen as she flies away), the drone dies after mating. His whole life has lead up to this moment. For the queen, however, her immense responsibilities are just beginning.
The future success of the entire colony (and, ultimately, its survival), rests on the queen’s ability to lay eggs reliably and increase the colony’s population. The mating flight is so critical for her, in fact, that she’s willing to risk her life to do it again if need be. The majority of queens only make this flight once; however, a very small percentage have been known to go back out to a DCA to mate again. She does not do this lightly. Each time she leaves the hive, she risks the weather, predation and accidents. It is a precarious journey, but absolutely necessary for the honeybees’ survival.