In my book, this weekend is the beginning of bee season. Winter's over, flowers are blooming, and nectar will flow soon. The hive is ready to accept a new crew of bees and most importantly, a new queen. She's a Carniolan, born and bred in California from Slovenian stock, and if her predecessors are any indication, she'll be hearty and productive. In a few short months, she'll rule a healthy hive of tens of thousands of worker bees - all female - and a few drones, the males. All but a handful are born from her eggs, which she'll lay at the rate of around 1000 a day. Around 3 weeks later (21 days for females, 24 days for males), they begin to emerge - at that same rate of around 1000 a day. It's not too long before the hive is boiling over with baby bees.
But here's something you've probably never considered, and the real magic of a bee colony. The queen is born with all of the eggs she'll ever lay, but in order to build a working hive full of worker bees, she needs to be fertilized. The queen is mated before I ever get my hands on her, in a mating ritual called the maiden flight.
In this flight, the young queens are sent aloft in a cloud of drones (male bees). When a drone mates with the queen, he injects her with sperm and pulls away. He dies almost immediately*, but the queen carries on with that drone's sperm. She packs it away and continues her flight. The next drone appears, and the same thing happens. She is typically mated with 15 - 18 drones before her flight is complete. All of this happens mid-air.
When the maiden flight is complete, the queen has stored enough sperm to fertilize all of the eggs she will ever lay - and that's when she gets packed up and sent to a beekeeper like me.
And this is the awe-inspiring part. Worker bees build the honeycomb that the queen will use as incubators for the eggs she lays. The queen will deposit an egg and depending on the size of the opening of the comb, she will either add sperm to the egg (creating a fertilized female bee-to-be) or she will not (creating a drone). She has no say over this - the worker bees determine what sort of offspring the queen lays based on the size of the comb they build. They maintain the population ratios in the hive. But all of the bees born of this queen are either full siblings or half-siblings. All emerge from the same queen's eggs, but she has 15+ sperm donations packed inside her, so there are 15+ 'groups' of full siblings in the hive, all females. The drones are half-siblings to all of the bees because they only have one parent, the queen.
The season passes and the queen ages. Throughout, the worker bees reshape the hive to keep it alive, sometimes even supplanting the queen.
A few years ago some documentary filmmakers caught the maiden flight on film, at 300fps. It's an amazing piece of filmmaking that manages to catch a split-second in the life of a queen. Check it out.
* The drone dies almost immediately because it bleeds to death. When it mates with the queen, it inserts its phallus into the queen. When he's done, he rips his body away literally - leaving the phallus inside her. His body falls away and he bleeds out. The next drone mounts the female and pulls out the previous drone's phallus before continuing the act.