Some doubt the existence of apiary vicinity mating but I have witnessed it myself more than a a dozen times, mostly queens flying from Apideas but once from a full colony where the queen was being superseded.
It always seems to occur on hot sunny days in the afternoon, exactly when you would expect queens to fly. This somewhat contradicts the suggestion that apiary vicinity mating is a strategy for mating locally in poor weather conditions.
A queen takes various orientation flights solo, and these can be taken early in the day. However, on the actual mating flight, she is often accompanied by a ‘mating swarm’ of several hundred bees. This may possibly be for protection, or could have some other role in attracting drones.
In the case of Apideas, the Apidea often completely empties for the duration of the mating process as all the bees are with the queen.
The bees circle around with the queen for ten to fifteen minutes, usually about eight to ten feet off the ground, not at a greater height as they are alleged to do at congregation areas. The swarm attracts drones from the colonies in the apiary and there may be many hundreds present. I have not witnessed a ‘drone comet’ as shown in some queen mating videos. I have walked through one of these ‘swarms’ and seen the drone concentration for myself, and have also seen the virgin queen in the air.
The bees ‘float’ slowly around over the apiary in a circular pattern, and the process is silent, not like the frenetic hum you hear with an ordinary swarm.
When the queen has mated, the workers return to the Apidea and start to fan at the entrance. I don’t know if the queen returns first or whether the workers fan at the entrance to attract her back.
If you witness this process and check the Apidea two or three days later, you will invariably find the queen has started to lay.
Sometimes the queen alights on a branch or a post and the bees settle around her as they would with any swarm. In this case, they may fail to return to the Apidea. I have retrieved several of these mini swarms and they always contain a mated queen.
I retrieved one in the morning which had spent the previous night twenty feet up a Lime tree which was giving shade to the Apideas. The queen started to lay three days later.
I have seen this behaviour for three years in a row at three different apiaries, so it seems to be a general phenomenon.
The bees were sub species Apis mellifera mellifera, or near native in all apiaries. I don’t know if other subspecies do this as well, as I have no experience of working with them. They may do, but I keep only Amm/near native bees.
I don’t believe all my queens mate locally and some must fly to more distant congregation areas but I have no idea what percentage flies further afield or what governs the choice of venue.
Some of my black queens produce a percentage of yellow workers and I suspect that these are the ones which have flown to a more distant congregation area.
I always graft from queens I am confident about such as Galtee origin stock.
Yellow abdomen colour is dominant over black (Woyke, 1976) and will show up as banding in the worker offspring if the virgin has mated with some yellow drones.
When I check, the queens which have mated over my own apiary always produce
dark offspring. This is very useful for the bee breeder if you have organised the drone colonies properly in your own apiary.
Jon Getty, October 2013