queen bees

A virgin queen’s fertility window

Does a virgin queen’s fertility turn off like a light switch? Probably not. Mary, a beekeeper with a few virgins, is worried about the mating timetable. She writes:

I’m curious. A fellow beekeeper said that after a queen has emerged from her cell, she has only eight days to mate. If not mated by 8 days, then she will not be fertile. Have you ever heard of a time restriction on when a newly emerged queen must get mated? We have had cold weather for over a week and I have several hives that could have virgin queens.

Mary

Words like “always” and “never” are verbal warnings that whatever follows is probably incorrect. Similarly, drop-dead numbers, such as “8 days” are also usually wrong, especially where natural systems are concerned. Assigning an arbitrary number is like saying once a woman hits 40, she’s doomed to be childless. Well, no.

Drones follow the pheromones

Virgin queen mating is governed by pheromones. According to a paper by Norman E. Gary, Chemical Mating Attractants in the Queen Honey Bee, pheromones given off by virgin queens help drones orient themselves to the virgins in the air. The trail of pheromone molecules guides them like a beacon.

With a system like that, it makes sense that the stronger the pheromone scent, the more likely mating will occur. Since a fresh young virgin is loaded with pheromones, new virgins are probably the most likely to mate.

When the clock strikes eight

I don’t know where the eight-day fertility window comes from, but it sounds like a reasonable number. However, it is probably an average, not the end of the line. Nature is incredibly flexible, and one individual is different from every other. I’ve never seen any information that says once your virgin hits day eight, she’s toast. 

Honey bees have been remarkably successful in nearly every environment they inhabit. If the species was so delicate that it couldn’t withstand a week of springtime rain or cold, it would never have survived the way it has. Natural systems within a colony can handle most of these day-to-day problems.

The answer in the bell curve

Yes, there comes a time when a virgin will be too old to mate successfully. But that age is going to fall on a bell curve. In other words, some will lose their ability quite early, some will hang on for a long while, and most will fall in the middle. 

An individual queen’s ability to mate is going to be influenced by a variety of factors including genetics, health, environmental conditions, and things like nutrition and chemical exposures. Do we know how much each factor matters? No, but they all could play a part.

Estimating the fertility window

I’m not saying your friend is completely wrong. His number may be a good rule of thumb, but nothing catastrophic is going to happen on day eight. More likely the pheromone levels in your virgin queens will drop over time, but some—perhaps even all—of your virgins may successfully mate anyway.

Remember, there is also variation within the drones. Some will have more sensitive noses than others. There’s someone for everyone.

What’s a beekeeper to do?

Don’t worry about your virgin queens. Take care of your colonies, making sure they have food and a reasonable amount of protection from the elements. Trust your honey bees’ ability to survive and try not to micromanage. The rest is up to them.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Nearly everything in a queen’s life is controlled by pheromones.

25 Comments

  • I raise quite a few queens. I’ve had queens sit in bad weather for 2 weeks past emergence and after the weather cleared up they were all walking around with a mating sign. Turned out to be perfectly fine queens. I was affected by 8 days perception too, so was really impatient to see how things turn out. Now I don’t worry so much.

    On a flip side, when the weather is good and all of the queens in the batch are laying on day 10, the odd one that is not laying is most likely is a dud. She might look pretty, but mating flights usually start on day 5, so not following the instinct to mate is a warning sign.

    • Thanks, Aram. Good observations. I too have seen virgins wait two weeks for clear skies and then mate perfectly fine. I imagine there is some “luck” involves, but it’s nothing I worry about. And yes, you can get duds even when the weather is perfect.

  • My bees just swarmed so I caught the swarm and let it keep the old queen. I’m going to let the original hive use its queen cells. There are multiple queen cells and I decided to leave them all. But I was wondering, do the queens kill each other before or after mating. It seems the hive would have a better chance of getting at least one mated queen if they killed each other afterwards.

    • Adam, that’s so funny. It seems to be the question of the day. See comment by Granny Roberta below. (Sorry. I tend to answer comments in reverse order.)

      Apparently, they kill first, then mate. Nature is strange.

  • The timing of this article couldn’t be more perfect! I’ve been googling “queen bee mating window” and the like, trying to figure it out myself. This article gives me hope that my virgin queens still have time to mate despite the bad weather last week. Thank you!!

  • The whole bell curve thing makes sense. Plus if it was weather keeping ALL the virgin queens from flying, then her low pheromone level only has to compete with all the other virgin queens’ low pheromone levels for the drones’ attentions. They’ll keep sniffing (antenna-waving?) till they find someone.

    Also, once again I want to argue with the whole first emerging queen kills all her queen-sisters thing. It would make so much more sense if she had to successfully return from her mating flight before doing that. But God and/or evolution didn’t ask my opinion, grumble grumble.

    • Roberta,

      Yes, I’ve always wondered about that myself. It doesn’t make sense, from a colony perspective, to bet your continued existence on the one bee that manages to kill the others. In addition, I don’t think that strength at killing and strength a reproducing necessarily go hand-in-hand. But like you, no one asked my opinion.

      • I’ve noticed that sometimes (not always) a colony can have what seems to be a sort of fail-safe. A capped queen cell or two at the end of the hive furthest from the main entrance will sometimes be left alone (maybe the workers are guiding the virgin away?) and don’t emerge until a week or two after the main batch of queens. If this happens, usually the colony in question seems to be taking longer than usual to become confirmed queen-right, and it isn’t until after these last queen(s) emerge and have had time to be mated that I see eggs.

        Of course, sometimes these “fail-safe” queen cells are eliminated in the usual way, just later than the rest. In which case, there are usually eggs at the usual time.

        *shrugs* Could be something else, but that’s how it has appeared to me.

        • Right, fail-safe. They are a wonder. I had an experience with a nuc where I was expecting to see a queen, calculating days. There were at least 8 queen cells from the start, but the first capped should have emerged (yes, I was too curious). I opened and looked, and yes one was decapped. But no virgin seen. My daughter was with me. I was a bit puzzled closing the nuc, when suddenly she goes, “DAD there she is!” And yes she was at the entrance, trying to get in, but kept out by the bees dragging her away. I took pictures, but let her be there for destiny. I was amazed, why this. Bees must have decided she was no good, and took a bet on those remaining 2 or 3 cells. Later, looking carefully at the pictures, I thought I could see that her body was slightly bent.

          • Georg,

            You’re lucky to see that. I once saw a queen coming back from a mating flight and all the workers ushered her in. They know things we don’t, like why a queen is good or not, and all we mere humans can do is watch in awe.

  • Beekeeper Michael Bush says they have 21 days to mate. I’m more comfortable with a 14-18 day window for mating, but I never call it “failed” until she has been in the hive for 31 days, with no eggs, as my eyes are not what they used to be. I raise a fair number of queens and newly emerged virgins (hours old to a day or two after emergence) are pretty much ignored by the workers. On day 3 after emergence, I think they finally start to “smell somewhat queenly” as the workers then start to feed them. On Day 4, the workers are very interested in the candy plug of the cage that the queen is in. (If you have these newly emerged queens in a butterfly habitat with young nurse bees, the queen roams around and feeds herself for the first 3 days and will be off by herself away from the bees until Day 3 or 4).

    • Ruth,

      Thanks. Interesting about the newly emerged queens feeding themselves. I never really thought about it.

  • Concerning the conversation about virgin queens and only one surviving… it makes me think about afterswarms with 2 to 40 virgins clustered together. I’ve heard multiple old-timer beeks talk about this phenomenon, and how sometimes the landed swarm cluster ‘squeezes’ a queen out of the middle to reject her while focusing on the better candidates in the middle. We see YouTubers crow at ‘finding’ the queen walking the outside of the cluster, but the old-timers know she’s an outcast, and the true scent trail is probably still in the center. I assumed that the 2-40 queens would finish the death dual once they settled on a colony site, but perhaps the rejected queen was actually a successfully stung rival in a competition inside the resting cluster, and that’s why she was tossed out by the workers.

    I’ve ‘saved’ virgins that have been stung by a sister while still entombed in her cell, and workers always attack and drive her off, even nurse bees from q-less colonies. They will reluctantly feed her if caged, but releasing her is death by neglect or by direct attack.

    I’ve started thinking of a worker sting on my suit as a smell bomb that quickly dissipates, but a queen sting as a long-lasting paint gun blast, that sticks around as a brand of shame for many days. Pheromones definitely seem to rule these fascinating critters… wish we knew more about it, especially with drone pheromones.

  • My experience has been that the first queen does not kill off the rest of them in all circumstances. The bees must protect some of the queen cells otherwise where do after swarms come from? I had a colony that had over forty queen cells when they swarmed and they ended up swarming six times. Swarmiest you’ve ever seen. I still have the offspring of these bees and they pretty much act the same way, altho they do not produce the amount of swarm queen cells like their ‘mother colony’ did. Best queen yard ever.

  • Hi Rusty
    I had a colony come through winter intact but with a drone laying queen. She appeared to be quite young (bright colored, etc) so I guessed that something happened to the old queen during winter, she was raised up but never mated. I wonder how long before an unmated queen begins to lay? I guess a month or so, but don’t really know. Thanks for your work!
    Pete

    • Hi Pete,

      That’s a good question and I have no idea the answer. I haven’t actually seen many drone layers, just one or two, so I’ve never paid much attention to them.

  • In reading books on honey bee biology I recall that virgin queens are not sexually mature upon emergence and that it takes six days on average for them to reach that point. If you figure another two days after returning from their mating flight before they begin laying then I don’t expect to see eggs in my mating nucs until 8 days after virgins emerge. I would say to the reader who posted the original question that 8 days is a minimal time period to expect mated queens from the time they exit their queen cells. I don’t know how long they will retain the ability successfully mate, but I suspect it is well beyond 8 days.

  • My old “Beebible” in Swedish from the 80s says around 3 weeks from emergence the queen will no longer be able to mate.

    Cheers from a cold Sweden.

  • Could a queen lay summer bees all year long. Might be reason for die out in early spring. No winter bees.

    • Robert,

      Researchers believe that winter bees begin forming when there is a lack of protein (pollen) in their diet. If beekeepers feed too much protein in the fall, there may be fewer winter bees or they may develop later. How frequently this happens, I don’t know, but it might be a good reason to feed pollen supplement in late winter and early spring.

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