Again, this is a complicated one. Beekeepers replicate the social structure of bees in the wild. So to understand the principles and practices of modern beekeeping, it helps to first understand some basics of natural bee behaviour.
A colony of honey bees is made up of one Queen and a varying number of workers and drones; a new swarm will contain around 20,000 bees in total, while a well established colony will comprise up to 60,000 – reducing down as winter approaches; increasing through spring and summer. Of this total only a few hundred will be male drones – their sole purpose being to go out and mate with a queen. The rest of the colony is made up of infertile female worker bees – who, as the name suggests, do all the work, being allocated different tasks throughout the course of their lives, ranging from nursery duty (feeding and cleaning up after the babies) to door-guard, housekeeper and food production, and of course the important duty of attending to the Queen, whose only purpose in life is to lay eggs. Within her first week of life, the new Virgin Queen will leave the hive on her ‘maiden flight’, seeking out a crowd of male drones flying en-mass in search of available queens. Only a few ‘lucky’ drones actually ever get to ‘do the deed’ – a brief encounter that leaves their genitals ripped from their body and embedded inside the queen – shortly after which, he dies. Yup: nature is brutal.
The mated queen then returns to the hive, and settles down to the important work of laying eggs, day in, day out – for her entire life. A queen may have mated with several drones on that one occasion. Those drones may be infected with any of the many diseases currently contributing to bee decline; they may be carrying virus or bacterial infection (which then gets passed onto the colony, who then spread it to other colonies) or be genetically prone to certain health problems and behavioural tendencies. For this reason some beekeepers – particularly those working on a larger scale – prefer to buy in queens that have been artificially inseminated by drones bred specifically to be good tempered and disease-free – as opposed to allowing their queens to fly off and mate randomly with bees of unknown genetic profile and potential health risk. In the wild a colony will periodically raise a new queen to replace the old, in an attempt to eradicate disease and other problems, or when the Queen becomes too old to continue laying. Beekeepers simply replicate this natural behaviour, utilising the wonders of modern science to mate and./or replace the queen as and when needed. But not all beekeepers. As a small-scale hobbyist, I allow my colonies to raise their own queens – as and when they decide they need – and allow these queens to do their own natural thing, flying off to mate where, and with whom, they choose. This of course brings it’s own complications; the queen may not return – or she may return un-mated and unable to lay the essential fertilised eggs; thus the colony may die (unless they are quick to raise another new queen who does then successfully mate). Or she may return, carrying disease infection – necessitating a whole array of prevention and treatment interventions. For these reasons, larger scale industrial beekeepers (working with thousands of hives over a large geographical area) may choose to ‘manage’ their workload by controlling the queen, using far different methods to those employed by a small-scale or hobby beekeeper, such as myself.