queen bees

A queen returning from a mating flight


I was in the right place at the right time when this queen returned from her mating flight with a mating sign still attached.

How often are you walking past your hive when a (previously) virgin queen alights on the landing board right in front of you? And how often when she does this do you happen to have a camera in your hand? Okay, the camera was not turned on and the lens cap was still in place. Nevertheless, I was able to get a few pics. Not great, but at least you can see her.

I had split this hive about two weeks earlier and taken the original queen for the split. The colony had been preparing to swarm and a number of queen cells were evident at the time of the split. After that, I had more or less forgotten about it, so it was a real shock to see this queen touch down in front of me. It actually took a moment for the whole thing to sink in.

A mating sign attached

When I first saw her she still had a mating sign attached to her abdomen, but it was quickly removed by the workers that surrounded her. By the time I got all my buttons and dials in the right place, she was already cleaned up and heading into the hive. Seriously, the whole process was amazingly quick, a matter of mere seconds.

She’s a pretty queen with an interesting pattern on her abdomen. The bees in this hive are basically mutts, crosses between Carniolans and whatever bees inhabit the area. This all happened last month and I haven’t opened the hive since then, but I can smell the strong scent of brood wafting from inside, especially on hot days, so I’m sure she’s doing just fine.

Honey Bee Suite

Queen-return-1aThe queen just after the mating sign was removed. The mating sign is the private parts of the last drone she mated with. © Rusty Burlew.
The queen just after the mating sign was removed. The mating sign is the private parts of the last drone she mated with. © Rusty Burlew.
The queen, returning from a mating flight, crawls over the entrance reducer. © Rusty Burlew.
The queen, returning from a mating flight, crawls over the entrance reducer. © Rusty Burlew.
The workers gathered around her as she made her way in. You can see a drone on the right. © Rusty Burlew.
The workers gathered around her as she made her way in. You can see a drone on the right. © Rusty Burlew.
This queen has an interesting pattern on her abdomen. © Rusty Burlew.
This queen has an interesting pattern on her abdomen. © Rusty Burlew.

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  • Rusty,

    What do you mean by “strong smell of brood”? You can detect brood smell? I have only smelled brood in a form of rotting drones taken out of frozen drone frames in front of the hive, so curious what you equate brood smell of healthy brood.

  • What an amazing experience for you to witness. I love all the valuable information here in your blog. Pictures are always incredible. Learning never stops when working on bees.
    Thanks Rusty!

  • How cool is that? (A rhetorical question).
    Nice picture especially considering the element of surprise.

  • At the risk of giving some of your male readers the heebie-jeebies for a few days, I think you can refer to the drones “private parts” as genitalia.

  • A very interesting post, in part because I am dealing with many hives which went queenless, (only one successfully requeened, unfortunately) and also because of your comment about detecting the “strong scent of brood.” I didn’t know one could smell brood and I will try to notice that in my future inspections. Nice pictures and yes she has an interesting abdomen!

  • Wow Rusty what great photos of returning queen. How nice of the bees to allow you to see a returning queen ! What a gift !
    It is awesome what you do for the bees with your web site.
    Thank You for Beeing !

  • Rusty,
    Great catch. I am sure you will not have any trouble finding that queen and she looks like a winner.


  • The one time I saw a queen sporting a mating sign I kind of freaked out, thinking she’d been injured. Had no idea it was left behind by the last drone to get his groove on. Her attendants weren’t in any rush to clean it up.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I witnessed a queen land on the outside of a queenless nuc and try to make her way into the hive. I’m sure she was the virgin queen that I introduced as she was a lovely caramel colour and the receiving nuclear bees were darker. I was surprised to see her being pulled away and disposed of by the guard bees at the entrance especially as this nuc was hopelessly queenless. No matter how hard she tried they were not letting her in! I scooped her up in a queen cage just in case she was at the wrong nuc. I checked all 3 nucs and this one was the only one without a queen. Any ideas why they wouldn’t let her in seeing as she originated from there and had been out on a mating flight albeit unsuccessfully?
    Several other attempts to get her back in failed so she was introduced to a different nuc at another apiary using the queen cage plugged with a bit of candy. Let’s hope they accept her!

    • Philippa,

      Is it possible that another virgin already mated and took over? Or is it possible the colony was producing laying workers?

  • Hi Rusty,
    Nice pictures. I left one of my hives for a year now and the only smell i get is the strong smell of honey.

  • Excuse me if this is a dumb question. But will she be making additional mating flights? Her abdomen doesn’t seem all that long. Is there additional growth that happens after she mates? I.e. additional development of eggs over time? Thank you for your posts! I learn so much from them. And now I’ve got my husband reading them too!

    • Barb,

      She may or may not take additional mating flights; I have no way of knowing. But yes, after mating she matures, produces hormones, and grows into an egg-laying machine. Virgin queens are often quite a bit smaller than mated queens, but it takes about two days for them to mature after mating. For more on this see When will a newly-hatched queen begin to lay?

  • Rusty,

    Thanks for sharing this extra special sequence of pictures of a newly-mated formerly virgin queen (now reigning queen of her bee colony) returning to her hive after her mating flight. What a very special insight. Much appreciated.

    Q: Do you primarily split hives to prevent swarming?

    • Jim,

      Yes. It’s just convenient to prevent swarming and makeup any winter losses all in one step. If I want to maintain a big populous hive, say for comb honey, I just take the queen and a frame or two of brood and put them in a nuc, which still leaves a big colony.

  • Wow so cool that you got pics! I saw the same thing you but without a camera. It feels extremely special. Yay bravo for getting the cam out!!

  • Wow, that’s amazing. I know some keepers who would pay good money for that queen. But they breed bees for looks as well as behaviour and honey produced.

  • While mating will a queen stay away from a hive for more than 24+ hours as she seeks a drone congregation sight?

    • Kelsey,

      No. The queen comes in before dark. If she isn’t sufficiently mated, she will go out again the next day.

  • I had two enlarged cells in my queenless hive that looked like queen cells. I checked three weeks ago and they where both open. I checked four days ago and I could not find a queen or eggs so I borrowed a couple of frames with some capped brood and about twenty larvae at different stages. Today looking for a queen again and I did not find a queen but I found five capped small queen cells on one frame, and two large peanut shaped on another frame. It’s my first 4 months in beekeeping. Can I leave one of these frames where it is and use the other to start another hive, or should I remove some of the queen cells?

    One more question: Is it possible for a hive to build new queen cells while a virgin queen is on a mating flight?
    I would appreciate the input.

    • Rudy,

      Don’t remove queen cells unless you can tell which ones are good and which ones are not. I certainly can’t tell.

      A virgin queen doesn’t have as many pheromones as a mated queen, so I think it’s possible for a colony to keep building queen cells until it finally has a mated queen.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Fifth-year beekeeper here from TN. Love your website and blog. They’ve been so helpful for me since I started beekeeping. Two days ago (Monday 4/22/19), I checked on one of my hives. They have a new queen and she’s a beauty! What was odd was that she had something sticking out of the end of her abdomen. It was an off-white color and looked like it had a thin red stripe. I had never seen anything like that before. A couple of the workers seemed to be chasing her around like they were trying to remove it, but she ran around like she didn’t want them to remove it. I snapped a few quick (blurry) photos to send to a beekeeping buddy, then I carefully put her frame back and closed up the hive. With a little research, I figured out what it most likely was: Leftover drone genitalia.

    My questions are: How long does it take for the workers to remove the “evidence?” If they can’t remove it, will they kill her? I plan to check on her and her hive this Saturday (4/27/19). Is five days too long to wait? If it’s still there, will I need to remove it with tweezers? If so, what’s the best way to go about doing that?
    I’m guessing she cannot lay eggs with the appendage sticking out of her rear end. I’m also guessing if she’s not totally mated, she will go on an additional mating flight or two. Hopefully the workers have already removed it as I’m typing this. We shall see. Thanks again for all you do for us beekeepers!

    • Osky,

      It’s perfectly normal to see “mating sign” in a newly-mated queen. You don’t have to do anything because the workers will take care of it. It happens all the time in nature with no human interference. She won’t start laying right away anyway because she needs to finish maturing for a few days. By then, it will be gone.

      • Thank you so very much, Rusty! That really makes me feel a lot better! Like I tell the bees: Hey, y’all are way smarter than me. I’m just a beekeeper???????✌

  • We have two queenless hives, we have requeened, but one hive had an open queen cell but we didn’t find the queen. Today we had some strange behavior in front of the hive. Bees buzzing in a cloud, not a swarm. Could you describe colony behavior when a mated queen returns from her maiden flight? Thanks for yuour informative website. We are finding it very helpful as we start this adventure. Valerie

    • Valerie,

      I have seen newly-mated queens return several times. Basically, they landed at the front of the hive and walked in. No hoopla whatsoever.

  • Rusty…. how long can the queen be gone out mating and how long after she hatches does she wait to leave….does she return to hive at night.

    • Keith,

      See this post. Also, an egg hatches after three days, and a queen can emerge at about 16. They may go on several mating flights, but always return at night.

  • We were gifted a top bar last summer. The queen didn’t make the move well and in 6 weeks all bees were gone. Last week we retrieved a local swarm from near an old hive in a tree. For 4 days they seemed content, then 3 days again they came out, I thought for the mating flight but have massed on the ground near the hive. We returned them twice now, but each afternoon at about 3 pm they swarm around and return to the ground. What can we do to get them to stay? Thanks

    • Robin,

      Honey bees often leave hives made of new wood. Let it air out for a year, or add something to it like used combs to make it smell more attractive.

  • Unlike the comments I read about neglecting a hive for months or in one case a year, I err the other extreme when I am anxious to see the results of the effort to create a new queen. If anything I go in to peek too soon. The urge is irresistible to me. And if I find her, I am so passionate about marking my queens, I will seize the opportunity to catch her, immediately attempt to mark her with the appropriate year color, and return her to the hive. This impatience means I am handling new queens which are still capable of flight. Not smart I know, I know.

    In this very way I lost a spanking new queen to the blue sky today at about noon on a fair May day here in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. I had carried her about 150 yards from the queen castle where she had been born in recent days. So sad but nothing to blame but myself. On to my question Rusty.

    What are the chances my new queen will find her way back to her birthplace, assuming tragedy such as a dragonfly or bluebird does not intervene? Might an overzealous idiot rookie raiser of queens get a second chance with his newest queen?

    • Randy,

      I think there is a good chance she will make it home, greater than 50 percent.

      • Thanks for the reply.

        So that was about 14 months ago that I inquired. I cannot give you a postscript.

        A day or so later I went back into the hive, and sure enough she had made her way back in.

        Since then I have had one other similar instance, and that one made it back also.

        And I have had one instance where the flighty new queen did not make it back in.

        So I am batting 667 so far!

        • Randy,

          I’m glad it worked out. Sorry for the delay. I was 380 questions behind, but now I’m down to 10. I figure the answer may help someone else, even if it was late for you.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m a relatively new beekeeper in Australia. I’ve looked for information about workers accompanying queens on mating flights. The few things I’ve seen were discussions in various forums (fora?) where most seemed to disbelieve that it happened, or was at best an occasional anomaly. But to me it makes total sense – evolution-wise, what sense is there in having a queen bother with orienting? Has anyone seen a queen orienting (not that I can find written about). If that’s the case, does she return to the hive from wherever might be the distant mating grounds by magic? It makes sense to me that she is guided by at least a small entourage.

    Any thoughts?

    • David,

      It’s a good question. When I first read that queens have escorts, I believed it because it seems important that the queen gets home safely. She may be her colony’s only chance for survival, so why not take care of her? However, I don’t have any first-hand proof. The times I’ve seen mated queens return, they landed at the same time as a bunch of workers, but that might not mean anything. And even if they did escort her to the hive, from how far away did that happen? From the DCA or were they patrolling the area near to the hive, looking out for her? There’s also the possibility of a genetic component, with some colonies being more apt to escort than other colonies.

      I have never seen a virgin queen on an orientation flight, but that doesn’t mean they don’t occur. These are excellent topics for further investigation.

      • So, right now I have been donated a small swarm to populate a Kenyan TBH that I made from scraps. (This was after I had captured an enormous swarm and had them orienting in a Langstroth with top bars in it.) I was too impatient and tried to trader next day before they attached comb to the sides, and they absconded. Anyway, the new donated swarm is small, and the beek who gave it to me thinks the small queen is likely a virgin. So in this case, when she mates she is carry every last hope for the colony (unless I buy a queen, or mangle an egg/new brood frame from one of my Langstroths and screw it onto a top bar).

    • I’ve had recently mated queens that had started laying get away from me after marking them about 50 feet from their hives on three or four occasions. In all cases they were found in their own hives later in the same day. They were, to me, obviously (still) oriented. Whether or not there are escort workers when queens go on mating flights, it makes more sense to me that the queens themselves would orient to their hives’ locations. Drones and workers all orient, so why shouldn’t the queens? What would be the survival advantage in not orienting? It seems more unlikely to me that a non-oriented queen would be able to be “guided” by escort workers. How would that work? Such guiding behavior doesn’t occur in other honey bee castes, that we know of, so it would have to be a special adaptation that had strong genetic advantages to have been selected for in evolutionary time. And, yes, queens do return from their mating flights by “magic”; the same kind that the workers and drones use. At least it seems magical to me. Move a hive’s entrance a few inches and watch the immediate confusion. Honey bees’ 3-dimensional sense of where they are and where their hive entrances are is amazing.

  • Just for the sake of sharing a story, I remember turning up to one of my bee sites, and was checking my mating nucs with a friend. Halfway through something landed on the veil of my suit, which I thought was a wasp. I asked my friend, “Hey what’s that on my veil?” Turned out to be a queen coming back from her mating flight, and landed on screen part of my hood on my suit. Never forget that one. 🙂

    • Jono,

      That’s why I say “never trust a queen!” They do the most unexpected things. Good story.