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Why Queen Bees are So Darned Promiscuous

The deadly parasitic Varroa mite on the back of this honey bee is one of many insect pests that sugar esters may be useful in controlling. Sucrose octanoate, a sugar ester, can kill the mite without harming the bee. (Image credit: Scott Bauer)

Seeking extra mates costs a promiscuous queen honeybee energy and time, and it puts her at greater risk of predation and catching venereal diseases. But it doesn't stop her.

For a healthier hive, the queens have sex with multiple males, according to a new study. While one male drone provides all the sperm a queen needs to be fully inseminated, she'll mate with a dozen or more.

So why is this wanton behavior worth the hazards?

"Evidently, one important reason is to generate diverse offspring, something that produces a colony that has higher disease resistance than a colony with offspring from just one father," said Cornell University biologist Thomas Seeley.

Seeley and North Carolina State University entomologist David Tarpy found that a colony fathered by more than one male was better equipped to fight off the infectious American foulbrood disease.

The results will be published in the Jan. 7 issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

Understanding the biology behind the behavior of promiscuous queens could help the big business of pollinating honeybees, which brings in $20 billion a year.

"Our findings are useful to beekeepers by showing them convincingly, I think, of the importance of providing lots of diverse males wherever queens are being produced," Seeley told LiveScience. "This is particularly important for commercial queen breeders, who have bee yards in which thousands of queens are being mated."

Corey Binns lives in Northern California and writes about science, health, parenting, and social change. In addition to writing for Live Science, she's contributed to publications including Popular Science,, Scholastic, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review as well as others. She's also produced stories for NPR’s Science Friday and Sundance Channel. She studied biology at Brown University and earned a Master's degree in science journalism from NYU. The Association of Health Care Journalists named her a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Journalism Fellow in 2009. She has chased tornadoes and lived to tell the tale.