The mid-air sex lives of bees

Thomas Quigley says beekeepers are obsessed with the sex lives of queens and drones at this time of year    

Beekeepers at this time of year are obsessed with sex, particularly, but hopefully not exclusively, with that which their queen bees and drones become engaged.

In order to keep the bee population high and healthy, beekeepers need to know a lot about the various aspects of a bee’s life — including its sex life and during the months of May and June the beekeeper is as busy at matchmaking, as she or he is at ensuring good production of honey.

Like every known creature, bees have the urge to grow and multiply. 

The first stage in this natural process is the production of the mother-to-be or virgin queen.

What beekeepers are finding this year is that bees are producing lots of baby queen cells which, if not interfered with by the beekeepers, will go on to hatch within 16 days, resulting in swarms emanating from their hives and depleting the beekeeper of the chance to get a good harvest of honey.

It is usually just before the new queen emerges that the old queen will leave her home in a swarm, taking a cloud of bees with her to start a new home elsewhere.

When the new queen emerges from her incubator-type cell, she is a virgin and if she is going to establish an active surviving colony, she will need to be mated with her male counterpart called the drone.

The male drone exists for this one reason only — to mate with the queen. He is entirely expendable once he provides this service to the colony. 

The drone takes his mission seriously and will give his life for the cause, being one the most dramatic kamikaze flying acrobats that can be found in nature.

To ensure genetic variability, drones in a hive do not usually mate with a virgin queen of the same hive. 

Sex occurs not in the hive but in mid-air where there are a number of different drones around.

A few days after birth the young queen flies out in search of mates. The mature drones, which leave the hive daily, are already waiting for her in special areas called drone congregation areas — something like our nightclubs or cruising areas. 

Drones from multiple hives will be flying around in these areas waiting for a young queen to fly overhead.

Drone congregation areas are fascinating. They can be as big as 1,000ft wide and anywhere between 50 and 100ft above ground. Anything from a couple of hundred to thousands of drones circulate in this area producing an audible sound similar to a swarm of bees.

Drones can choose among many congregational areas near the apiary and they seem to prefer ones closest to the nest. However, such is the power of the sex drive that drones will travel up to 7 km and cross high mountain ridges to get to one.

During its life, a drone can visit a few different congregation areas and sometimes more than one is visited by the same drone during one day. Usually drone congregational areas are in and around open spaces, without trees or hills for example, or over water or forests, or at the end of valleys.

Young queens appear to be attracted to drones only within these congregation areas, possibly because the drones are releasing a pheromone (some resemblance to men’s eau de toilette) which is attractive to the queen.

Eventually, within one of these congregations, a brave drone will make his move. As he grasps the queen, the drone extends his penis and inserts it tightly into the queen’s reproductive tract. 

He immediately ejaculates with such explosive force that the tip of his penis ruptures and is left behind inside the queen. The drone falls to the ground, where he soon dies. During her nuptial flight, the queen will mate with a dozen or more partners, leaving a trail of dead drones in her wake.

The queen will store up to 100 million sperm in a special structure called a spermatheca for use throughout her life of two to three years. This type of multiple mating (and insemination) of females with different males is particularly common among social insects.

Queens can produce significantly fitter colonies by being polyandrous, however as often happens with multiple partners, there is the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.

A study at the University of Leeds in 2015 has confirmed that the parasite, Nosema, a common disease among stressed bees, can be sexually transmitted.

Honeybee drones that are infected by the parasite have Nosema spores in their semen and these spores have been shown by the Leeds’ researchers to pass it on to the queen during mating.

This recent evidence confirms the need for beekeepers to be gentle with their bees and to be vigilant about the health of their colonies. After her nuptial flight the young queen returns to the hive and she will use her own pheromones to tell female worker bees if she has recently mated, and how successful the mating was.

The worker bees group around the queen to get the chemical message, and then spread it through the hive, in a form of bee gossip.

Scientists found that worker bees responded differently, depending on how well the mating had gone: a highly inseminated queen bee’s pheromones increases foraging and inhibits rearing of new queens and the activation of worker bee ovaries.

Basically, the queen bee asserts that she is still in control of the hive by getting impregnated and then telling everyone. 

Are honey bees providing another lesson to humanity… being sex-positive and running the show?


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