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One of the more surprising discoveries for the new beekeeper is the idea that queens travel to specific areas to mate with drones. Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs) are a fascinating place where queens kick-start their life of egg laying - and drones end their own.
Another interesting aspect of DCAs is that they tend to exist in the same spot, year after year. It is not entirely understood how drones can locate these spaces, particularly since the lifetime of any single drone will not span more than a few weeks. Some consider environmental clues to be a principle factor to where DCAs are situated, while others believe the role of pheromones is key.
Regardless of how or why drones flock to a DCA, flock they do! And they do so in impressive numbers. Studies have shown that the number of distinct colonies are represented in a single DCA can reach into the hundreds. To reiterate, that's not hundreds of drones - that is drones from hundreds of colonies!
Why is this? Well, there are significant and clear genetic benefits to a DCA with representation from many colonies (which means many generic lines). Genetic diversity is a good thing and so the DCA plays an important role.
DCAs vary widely in size. They can be anything from 20' to 120' above the ground and up to 600' across. That's a huge area!
The shape of the DCA is such that it is wider at the bottom and becomes more narrow further away from the ground.
Drones will typically fly to a DCA close to their hive, rather than find one further afield. By comparison, queens will travel further. This is one of many checks and balances that reduce the likelihood of queens mating with drones from the same genetic line.
The drones in the DCA wait eagerly for a queen to arrive before the action begins. The unsuccessful drone - he who doesn't find his queen - will fly around for around 30 mins or so, before returning to the hive. Of course, the large ratio of drones to visiting queens in the DCA will mean that most drones will go home.
Traveling to a DCA is one of the most dangerous of times for the queen. From the safety of her colony, her time en-route and back from the DCA represents a prime opportunity for any number of birds to pick her off! That transition from unmated queen to mated queen and - hopefully - back to the hive is one of the more risky periods for the beekeeper!
All this, of course, is for the express purpose of reproduction. The queen's journey has risk, but for the successful drone it's the end of the road.
As the queen enters the DCA, a line of suitors will immediately form behind her, attracted by her pheromones. As with many aspects of nature, the fastest and strongest of drones will win the day, at least by the measure of having the chance to mate.
But that brief and essential moment, which will only last around 5 seconds, also results in the death of the drone, as he attempts to pull away from the queen.
Meanwhile, the queen - having taken on board another drone's sperm - will continue around the DCA, stirring up ever more excitement. She will mate 10 - 20 times in this one journey, which speaks to yet more genetic diversity represented by this one queen.