Drone Congregation Areas

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The study of drone congregation areas (DCAs) has fascinated bee researchers for years. In these special areas, male honey bee drones seek to mate with virgin queen bees. DCAs play a pivotal role in honey bee reproduction and genetic diversity. Hundreds of drones gather in these zones awaiting the mating flights of young queens. More than just a physical location, many bee behavioral dynamics play out here.

Large drone bee rests after returning from a congregation area..

Drone bees are sometimes under appreciated in the bee world. They do not work to support the hive. However, they fulfill a role in bee life that is essential to continuation of the species.

Drone Congregation Areas: Role in Reproduction

Honey bee reproduction requires males and females of the species (in this case Apis mellifera). The male – drone bees develop from eggs laid by the queen that are not fertilized. Their sole purpose is mating.

Most people are surprised to learn that honey bees do not mate inside the hive. Virgin queens must leave the hive to take one or more mating flights.

When the season (and weather) is right, mature drones fly to specific locations in the area hoping to mate. Here, they gather and wait – hence we use the term drone congregation area.

After mating with a queen in flight, the drone has completed his role in the colony. The queen stores semen inside her body to be later used to fertilize eggs. The drone does not return to the hive but falls to the ground and dies.

Drone honey bee leaving hive for afternoon mating flight.

Importance of Drone Congregation Areas

Drone congregation areas are a honey bee thing. Not all insects mate in a special area like this. In fact, beginning beekeepers are fascinated to learn that drones live in the hive with virgin queens but no mating takes place there.

While we don’t know exactly why honey bee reproduction works in this way, there are some advantages.

One of the most beneficial aspects of having numerous drones involved in the mating area is the genetic diversity provided. 

It is not best for a queen to mate with males from her own colony. They are likely her brothers. Too much inbreeding can result in unhealthy bees – nature loves genetic diversity.

Bees can fly several miles to these special breeding areas. However, most of the drones come from colonies within a mile or less from the DCA. This still allows a mix of bees from many different colonies. 

Some studies show a mix of bees from more than 100 colonies can gather in one DCA. Since the queen mates with more than 1 male, the result is a great mix of DNA.

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Characteristics of DCAs

Think of a drone congregation area as being an invisible space or zone high in the air. The range above the ground is from 15 to 130 ft high – depending on which studies you read.

They measure from 300 to 600 feet across. But, the area will be smaller if the weather conditions are not perfect.

Researchers do not know how bees find a drone congregation area. But, some believe that bees may choose a space in reference to certain geographical and landscape features.

  • areas with high light
  • location protected from winds
  • no obstacles to impede flight
  • may have a nearby tree line or similar

There seems to be drone flyways between mating sites. Male honey bees might go from one to another if they do not find a queen-even during a single flight.

Perhaps, the bees instinctively know that a certain area would be a good spot so they fly over to investigate. One intriguing aspect about DCAs is that they tend to appear in the same areas year after year. 

How do the drones and queens known where to go? All of the drones from the previous season as likely dead. And, a queen only has one time of mating. Yet, the bees seem to find each other.

Diagram showing one way bees may find a DCA.

Where to Find a DCA

If you get lucky, you may find a drone congregation area. I never have but would dearly love it.

Scientists use helium balloons containing queen pheromones (or a caged virgin queen) to aid in finding high numbers of drone in areas. Insect radars are another helpful tool in finding DCAs.

These studies help us understand common characteristics of these breeding grounds. A better understanding of honey bee mating is an aid in developing new breeds of bees.

Perhaps one day we will have a breed that offers even better resistance to mites or other health issues that plague our bees. In the meantime, we must perform varroa mite tests and control the mites when needed.

Another common indicator of a drone congregation area is finding a spot with many dead drones on the ground. Perhaps, you will hear a loud audible humming of bees if it is a warm afternoon.

Behavior Patterns

Drone flights to the drone congregation areas normally take place on warm, fair afternoons throughout the warm season.

They may return to the hive to rest or have refreshments before heading out again. Most drone mating flights take please between 2 – 5 pm

Arriving at the DCA, drones congregate in mid-air, forming swirling clusters or “mating balls” as they await the arrival of virgin queens.

Of course, most days are a bust and no queen comes by. Drones prefer nearer drone congregation areas – closer to the apiary. While queen bees tend to fly farther away. Again, this contributes to genetic diversity of the offspring.

Drone Comet (Cone)

You may have noticed that a drone bee has two large compound eyes. There is an important reason for their enhanced sight. They must be able to see a small queen bee flying high in the air.

But, they do not rely only on visual clues. They recognize various queen bee pheromones or chemical messengers. (We might think of these as a scent.)

The swarm of drones takes off chasing the queen, their bodies form a comet (or cone) shape trailing behind her.

Queen bee after mating with drones is ready to lay eggs.

Mating Occurs

Ideally, the healthiest and most robust drones reach the queen first. Now, the mating act occurs. An individual drone grabs the queen in the air and inserts his endophallus into her sting chamber.

As semen is ejected into the queen, the drone falls back. His reproductive organs break off and he falls to the ground to die.

The next drone will attempt to remove the “mating sign” left behind by his predecessor and perform his own act. A queen may mate with 12-20 drones over a period of a few days. 

Not all of the males will be lucky enough to have the opportunity to mate. Those who are not able successful will return again on another day.

FAQs

How do drone find congregation areas?

We don’t really know the compete answer to how drones know where these mating areas are located. It seems that they use auditory and visual clues to find likely locations.

What is a drone cone or comet?

This is the term used to describe the shape of the many drones flying in the air in pursuit of a virgin queen.

How far will drones fly to mate?

Drones can fly several miles to a DCA if needed. However, they tend to prefer areas near the hive – within a mile or so.

How do drones locate the queen?

They use visual cues and recognition of queen pheromones to find a queen in flight.

Final Thoughts

Drone congregation areas are vital to diversity in honey bee populations and having robust colonies. We may not understand everything about how the bees find each other – but they do. And, this is another one of those mysteries about bee life for us mere humans to ponder.

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