The role of the queen bee is critical in a honey bee colony.
Most new beekeepers know this.
But the other significant events in her life can sometimes be a mystery.
A common question is whether or not the queen leaves the hive. And if so, when, why, or how many times?
This might seem obvious to some folks. But understanding the queen bee’s various movements helps us better manage our bee colonies.
So here are the answers…
Does the queen bee leave the hive?
Yes. New queen bees will leave the hive to fly to the drone congregation area (DCA). This mating area is where male drone bees gather and wait for the young queen.
Mating is the main reason for a queen to leave the hive. After all, a healthy, fertile, laying queen is essential to the continuing existence of the bees.
But other circumstances can also motivate the queen to leave under favorable or adverse conditions.
And on rare occasions, she may leave accidentally!
Do queen bees mate with their own drones?
The queen does not mate with bees from her own colony but will mate multiple times with various males from the DCA.
When the queen leaves on her maiden flight, she will first circle the hive to orientate herself so she can find her way back.
The DCA comprises hundreds or even thousands of drone bees from many different colonies. This mechanism helps prevent inbreeding and genetic disorders in future bee colonies. Studies have found that the bees in a hive may have up to 50 fathers.
The greater the genetic diversity, the better.
Breeding happens in mid-air, and the act of mating is a risky affair!
After all… The queen is at the colony’s heart, and the hive cannot survive without her. She exposes herself to predators or bad weather conditions by leaving the hive. Sometimes she might even just get lost! For this reason, she will only come out of the hive to mate for about 15 minutes.
In the past, beekeepers believed that the queen only made a single mating flight. However, research suggests that she will continue to leave the hive over several days, making multiple mating flights.
Despite the risk involved, it seems that the benefit to the colony of genetic diversity is worth the gamble.
After mating is complete, she returns to the hive and shortly afterward begins laying eggs. She stores the sperm from the drones for several years so will not leave the hive again to mate.
Despite the potential longevity of a queen bee, beekeepers will often replace the queen after a couple of years because the laying capacity of the old queen begins to diminish. This is known as “requeening.”
How far do queen bees fly to mate?
When a virgin queen bee quits the hive to mate, she flies up to 2 or 3 miles to reach the mating site. This is a significant distance and is further than the distance flown by drone bees.
There may be several DCA sites nearby the hive, but the queen will ignore these and search for a DCA further afield.
This is another safeguard to prevent the queen from mating with drones from the same hive.
When do queen bees leave the hive?
The queen (and the drones) will choose a warm, preferably sunny, afternoon to leave the hive for mating. The queen will not leave the hive if weather conditions are not favorable. Windy or wet weather makes it very difficult for bees to fly.
Queen bees are raised only when a colony senses the need to replace the existing queen. For example, this can happen during the swarming season.
There can only be one queen in a colony. If the old queen is still present when the newly mated queen returns to the hive, she will sting her to death to ensure she is the only one. Alternatively, the old queen may have left with a swarm. The victorious queen bee will also kill any remaining queen larvae.
The queen bee only mates in her first year. So for mating purposes, the queen only leaves the hive once.
Why does the queen bee leave the nest?
The virgin queen bee leaves the hive to mate, but an older queen can also leave the nest for a few other reasons. However, she does not leave the hive alone on occasions like this. Instead, she will take part or all of the colony with her.
For example, this could be part of the colony’s natural reproduction method or when the bees are under stress and decide to leave.
Most folks believe the queen only leaves once for mating purposes and then remains inside the hive. But there are a few other occasions when the queen can choose to leave a beehive.
Reasons for the queen leaving the nest include:
- Mating (once in her life)
Swarming is part of a colony’s natural urge to reproduce and perpetuate the species. If the honey bee population grows too large, conditions inside the hive can get overcrowded. This can cause disorder throughout the beehive. The exchange of the queen’s pheromones, needed to control the other bees, becomes too dispersed.
As a result, the queen will leave the hive with up to half the colony of honey bees in search of a new nesting site.
Another condition when the queen can leave the hive is when the colony absconds. This happens when bees are under stress, and the bees consider the beehive to be unfit for habitation. A colony in a brand new hive can also choose to abscond because they are not yet familiar with their new nesting site.
When absconding, the queen leaves the hives with almost the entire colony.
Finally, the queen can also leave the hive accidentally!
Yes… This can happen 🙂
During hive inspections, there’s a risk the queen bee herself will fly off while the beehive is open.
If this happens, try leaving the hive cover off for about an hour, then check for her presence again. Usually, the familiar scent of the hive is enough to bring her back inside.
A queen might only quit the nest once in her lifetime. But if circumstances require it, she may leave the hive in the colony’s interests.
And it’s true, occasionally she might get lost 🙂