There are two distinct types of mating that are used by honey bees. They are respectively “Apiary Vicinity Mating” and “Drone Assembly Mating”.
Apiary vicinity Mating usually happens in cooler weather than most would expect and for that reason it is more local to the apiary from which the queen came. There is a high probability that mating occurs with drones from the same apiary. This does not automatically lead to inbreeding, but has a bearing on why some strains of Amm tend to stay un-hybridised.
Drone assembly areas (drone aggregation), there is a chapter on this in “Honey Bees of the British Isles” (B.A. Cooper, BIBBA) and they comprise two sub types.
Bubble Assemblies take advantage of quickly occurring, but short lived bursts of good weather, Drones gather in a bubble of warm air that may form due to a building or even a hedgerow. They may be close to an apiary or they may be further away. Obviously those that are the furthest from the queen’s hive have the largest diversity of drones, but drones local to the queen’s hive are not precluded from taking part. They may be alerted by the exit of the queen from the hive and even pursue her “en route”.
Classic Distant Assembly occurs in calm “hot” weather during a six or seven week period starting around mid June.
Mating frequency… It is my personal conjecture that the high number of drones that Amm type queens mate with is some sort of compensation for the possibility of closely related drones due to the shortness of some of the distances.
I have come to understand a little more and my personal conviction about the compensatory effect has been strengthened… See Multiple matings and Evolution of multiple matings.
How do the queens and drones know where to go? different mechanisms are at work in each of our three scenarios… I have seen apiary vicinity mating many times, but I have only seen fragments of it, I do not think that I have ever seen one session from beginning to end. The flight of both drones and queens is incredibly fast and there is a sort of hum or buzz in the general bee population (it has usually been this “buzz” that has alerted me to the fact that it is going on).
The only guess that I have on bubble assembly is that both drones and queens follow an upward temperature gradient.
The classic case occurs in settled warm weather and it is noticeable that these areas are constant year by year. The patch of sky is one that will be warmer due to geographic features and I believe that temperature gradient is again responsible for leading the drones and queens to the location. The temperature gradient has wider end points at this time of year and the distances travelled and quantities of both queens and drones is increased as a result.