Mating Naturally
Scientific Beekeeping
Female Reproductive System
Male Reproductive System
The virgin queen Apis mellifera will mate with 15 to 20 drones (Tarpy et al 2015). She will go on between one and three mating flights. The weather must be warm, dry and not too windy with a temperature of 20c often quoted. In many areas in northwestern Europe, in poor summers, these conditions may be experienced only occasionally. Locally adapted bees could be expected more likely to be able to cope with these conditions. The drones are said to fly in slightly lower temperatures. Each mating flight of the queen can last betwwn 30 minutes an and hour. The drone congregation area may be up to 5km away from the apiary, usually little more than 2km. Queens are found to fly further than drones.

The queen will take a further mating flight if she calculates her spermatheca to be holding too few sperm. Woyke wrote about this in 1966. The abstract is available in English and the full article in German appears to the left.
"There exists a slight correlation between the size of the spermatheca and the number of ovarioles in the ovary. Thus the final number of sperms in queens starting to lay, depends in a very high degree on the size of the spermatheca and is influenced by the rearing conditions."

Mating can only take place once both parties are mature, five days for the queen and 12-14 days for the drone.

Mating takes place in drone congregation areas (DCA). These are found to be between approximately 5m (15 feet) and 30m (100 feet) above the ground. This is said to vary with subspecies of Apis mellifera. It appears like a cone with the wide base at the bottom which can be up to 200m (650 feet) across.

There have been many experiments to try and find out what makes any location ideal for mating honey bees. The variables considered include, wind speed and direction, altitude, earth's magnetic field alignment, the contours of the land, presence of water and the skyline It has been postulated that bees prefer an open area protected by trees or high vegetation at its perimeter.

These drone congregation areas facilitate the outbreeding of queens. Drones from local apiaries will meet and wait for virgin queens to arrive from the surrounding hives. When queen breeders want to control the mating of their stock they find isolated areas where there are no other bees and they flood the area with the drones they have selected.

Having arrived at the DCA the queen will attract a great many drones with 9ODA from her mandibular glands. They will persue her in what is decribed as a comet tail. They approach her from downwind and below her at an angle of up to 40 degrees (Praagh et al 1980). The drone then uses his first and second pairs of legs to grab at the top of the queen's abdomen, his hind legs being held away from the queen.

Landscape analysis of drone congregation areas of the honey bee, Apis mellifera Galindo-Cardona et al, 2012
Mating Frequencies of Honey Bee Queens (Apis mellifera L.) in a Population of Feral Colonies in the Northeastern United States, Tarpy et al 2015
On what depends the number of spermatozoa in the spemathecaheca of naturally mated queen honeybees? Woyke, 1966
The mating sign of queen bees originates from two drones and the process of multiple mating in honey bees
Jerzy Woyke, 2011
Drone bees fixate the queen with the dorsal frontal part of their compound eyes. Praagh et al, 1980

The drones' metatarsi have hairs which aid this grip. The hind legs clasp around the queen's lower abdomen and this appears to stimulate the queen to open her sting chamber. The drone curves the tip of his abdomen towards the sting chamber and contracts his abdominal muscles, causing the endophallus to inflates and fit snugly in the sting chamber. The basal area of the endophallus along with the half everted horns, becomes anchored within the queen's vagina.

At this stage the tip of the endophallus forms a tiny tube which is inserted behind the valve fold of the queen's vagina. Getting beyond the valve fold can be found to be difficult when practising instrumental insemmination.

The horns now strengthen this connection and the female and male reproductive organs join in an airtight union. The drone becomes paralysed and the queen begins to loose height. She contracts her sting chamber, thereby tightening her hold on the endophallus, the pressure causes it to fully evert. With the tip of the endophallus (the cervix) in the median oviduct the sperm are transfered.

The sting chamber is fully extended and the increasing pressure throws the drone backwards with his endophallus held firmly. It does not "snap". Parts of the organ peel apart leaving mucous, the chitin plates and the horns behind as the mating sign.

This event takes place in just seconds. The queen can mate again immediately.
Otto Hahn/SPL
Mating Biology of Honeybees : A lecture given by Gudran Koeniger at the National Honey Show 2014
The book to the left "Mating Biology of Honey Bees (Apis mellifera" by Koeniger et al is by far the best book on this topic. Many texts found elsewhere can be out of date in some respects. It is available from Northern Bee Books from the link below for £27 plus P&P
Mating Biology of Honey Bees (Apis mellifera)