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.
Honey Bee Suite