biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow heligoland

Why are there honey bees on Heligoland

When there shouldn’t really be any?

The small 1.4 km2 large German North Sea rock island of “Heligoland” (in German “Helgoland” and in the local Frisian language “DeatLun”) is a fascinating place. By 1400 the island had been one of the hideouts of the pirate Klaus Störtebeker (meaning “emptying one mug of beer in one gulp”). In 1890 the island was given to Germany from England for the German colony of Zanzibar (which then became British), but before it became British in 1814, Helgoland had been claimed by Danish, Swedish and Dutch rulers. After World War II, when the island (after it had been made into a fortress by Hitler and ‘survived’ attempts by the British 1947 to bomb it into oblivion), it became a famous taxfree haven and tourist resort. I love this unique place and have followed its growth and recovery ever since I had first visited Heligoland in 1955.

When the sun shines and there is no wind (which is rare) this small island can be a magically beautiful place and when in the summer of 2019, I went there with my wife, we were in luck: fantastic weather the whole week. The sun was shining, blue skies, colourful flowers everywhere, bees humming from one inflorescence to the next….But, hey, honey bees? Real honey bees?  There shouldn’t be any, was my immediate thought. It was impossible they could have reached this oceanic island 60 km from the German mainland; bees do not fly across water  – even a small lake is an obstacle for them. I was puzzled. Besides the small area of the island and consequently limited pollen and nectar source would certainly have precluded any bee culture on the island. It annoyed my wife a bit that suddenly I seemed to be more interested in the island’s bees than her (at least until I had solved the puzzle).

The solution was this: successful beekeeping all over the world is associated with conserving the best possible genetic make-up of the queen with target characteristics such as the capacity of honey collection or disease resistance of her and her offspring. For the conservation and improvement of the genetic diversity of the bee, artificial insemination with selected drone bees or having a remote island mating location are the methods of choice. Heligoland is an ideal place to conduct controlled matings to produce honey bee queens with desired characteristics without genetic contamination or mix-up. That is why in one summer season between May and July approximately 80 virgin queens, each with about 600 worker bees, are taken to Heligoland from several locations in northern Germany by ship.

To ensure that high quality drones are present prior to the arrival of the virgin queens, drone hives are placed a fair distance away from the queen mating apiaries. A full frame of drone brood will produce around 700 mature drones, which may live up to 60 days but exhibit declines in fertility after 28 days. It’s been calculated that for 200 virgin queens one needs to have 8 drone mother colonies and for 80 virgin queens one would require perhaps 2,000 high quality drones. A single queen on her nuptial flight (or three or four flights) may mate with several drones and once successfully inseminated queens will be returned to its owner about 3 weeks after the excursion to the honey bee’s “Love Island”. Stray drones (other than the selected high quality ones) can simply not be present there and I learned that annually around 150 virgin queens are taken to Heligoland. One can imagine how happy the bachelor drones must be when the virgin queens arrive! Alas, all drones lose their genitals after mating once and die.

I also learned that not every virgin queen is equally attractive to drones and that queen bees that had already mated with several males were of particular interest to other males. That reminded me of what had been termed the “wedding ring effect” by researchers who had noticed the preference of young human females for men that were married, apparently because such men signified “quality”. But perhaps there was also some competitive element or maybe even ‘envy’ involved. Anyway, I didn’t share this snippet of information with my wife, lest she’d get worried about her husband.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021.
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