It has been my long-term goal in beekeeping to produce queens and nucleus hives. So, over the next 12 weeks I'm going to try something I've never tried before, I’m going to start grafting 12-to-24-hour-old larva into artificial queen cups with the hope of producing queens. In the past, I’ve harvested queen cells by letting Mother Nature produce them for me using a procedure called “walk away splits”. This is done by taking a frame with eggs and placing it in a separate “queenless” hive with lots of nurse bees inducing them to raise numerous queen cells in an attempt to “requeen” their colony. I then harvested the queen cells, and I use them for splits. It’s really a fun way to produce some queens to start nucleus hives to overwinter and replace any “deadouts” in the spring. Any beekeeper who hasn’t tried it yet should. It will help your apiary be sustainable.
I have identified one incredibly strong hive that did extremely well making it through this last winter. That queen will be my breeder queen for the rest of the queens that I produce this year.
Producing queens with great genetics is really only half the battle, probably the easiest half. Getting her successfully mated and back to the hive is the hardest half.
So, let's talk “birds and the bees” about bees. You see, honeybees don’t mate in the colony. And virgin queens shouldn’t mate with drones in the same colony either. Sure, it would be simpler that way. After all, the hive is dark, warm, quiet, and safe. Everything you could possibly want for a romantic encounter to happen. But it doesn't happen this way and for good reason. All the bees in a particular colony have the same queen as their mother. So, if virgin queens and drones mated from the same colony it would be a brother – sister mating. And in honeybees that's disastrous. Highly inbred queens will have low egg production, worker bees will have a reduced life span, and drones will have less sperm and decreased flight activity. All bad for honeybee colonies. To avoid inbreeding, all bee matings, except for one (I’ll get to that later), occur in what are called “drone congregation areas” (DCA’s).
A DCA is a designated area about 50-300 feet above the ground in which drones congregate waiting for a virgin queen to mate. I don't know if anyone really knows what attracts drones to these particular areas, but whatever it is, drones continue to congregate in these areas year after year. A well-studied DCA in the Alps has consistently attracted drones to the same location for more than 40 years.
It has been estimated that about 10,000 to 15,000 drones are congregated at a DCA at any one time during the mating season. That number certainly depends on the number of hives in the area, weather, and time of year. This population of drones in the DCA may represent drones from 100 to 200 nearby colonies. The ratio of virgin queens to drones in a DCA has been estimated to be about 1 virgin queen for every 2000 drones.
The nature of DCAs makes the probability of in-breeding very low. It does this in several ways. Bees only have enough energy stores to fly for about 20-25 minutes. So, drones tend to fly to the nearest DCA. The reason they choose the closest is that they will spend most of their energy flying around in the DCA waiting for a virgin queen to mate with. So, they want to spend as little energy as possible getting there. Whereas the queens tend to fly to a DCA farther from the colony. Since each mating only takes 2 seconds, most queens can receive 15 or more matings in less than 5 minutes. Therefore, she has more time and energy to fly to a more distant DCA. So, drones stay closer to the original hive and virgin queens fly farther away to mate. Plus, the ratio of drones to virgin queens make it an even smaller probability of brother-sister mating.
So hopefully we have our virgin queen mated with multiple nonrelated drones. Now we have to get her back home. Over 30 years of data from northern Germany shows that 20% of the mated queens will not make it back to the original hive. This can be due to things like being eaten by birds or dragonflies, knocked off course by a thunderstorm, or becoming disoriented and not returning to the same hive she left prior to her mating flight. Only 8 out of 10 mated queens go on to produce a colony of bees. So how can we ensure that every mated queen goes on to produce a colony of bees? As I mentioned earlier, there is another alternative to mating virgin queens outside of the DCA. That other alternative is using artificial insemination. Yep, you read it right, you can artificially inseminate a virgin queen bee. My initial thought when I first heard about artificial insemination of bees was not so much inseminating the virgin queen, but how are they collecting sperm from those drones? I envisioned a little queen mounting dummy or using a miniaturized electronic device we would commonly use to collect from other male livestock species. Not so. Collection occurs by everting the drone’s endophallus and collecting the sperm from it. Usually, 10 or more drones are collected for every queen to be inseminated. Artificially inseminating virgin queens takes some investment in very special equipment, extreme sterile conditions, and probably some practice to get it right. Maybe something this beekeeper may try in the future but for now, I think I’ll leave the virgin queen mating up to Mother Nature. She's been doing a pretty good job of it so far.
"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous" - Aristotle’s
James R. Berger, DVM