Honey bees are appreciated for the vital role the play in our agriculture system. However, the story how the drone bees contribute to colony success is less known. The sole purpose of a drone bee is to mate with a virgin queen. But, this mating does not take place inside the hive. Instead, they gather in drone congregation areas (DCAs) to wait for queens. Researchers remain amazed at this activity and much is still unknown.
What are Drone Congregation Areas?
In honey bees, reproduction depends on have males and females of the species. The male bees in the colony are called “drones”. They develop from eggs laid by the queen bee that are not fertilized.
The colony life of a drone bee may seem an easy existence. They do no work. Drones do not gather food or protect the colony. But, their role is no less important because the continuation of bee life depends on them.
Reproduction in Honey Bees
Bee reproduction is an amazing thing. Most people are surprised to learn that honey bees do not mate inside the hive. When the season (and weather) is right, mature drones fly to specific locations.
Here they gather and wait – hence we use the term drone congregation area. They buzz around hoping to find and mate with new queens that are taking their mating flights.
After mating with the 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.
Importance of Drone Congregation Areas
Drone congregation areas are a honey bee thing. Not all insects mate in a special area like this. 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.
What Happens When a Queen Arrives
Flights normally take place on warm, fair afternoons throughout the season. Drones may return to the hive to rest or have refreshments before heading out again. Most drone mating flights take please between 2 – 5 pm
The drones fly back and forth within the air. They are patrolling and hoping to find a young queen. Drones prefer DCAs that are closer to the apiary – while queen bees tend to fly farther away.
Of course, most days are a bust and no queen comes by the drone congregation area. But when a virgin queen is sighted – the game is on.
Drone Comet Chases Queen
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, the drones 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 shape trailing behind her. The drone comet follows the queen around the area attempting to mate.
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.
The semen is stored in a reproductive organ called a spermatheca until it is needed. The queen must have semen in order to lay fertilized eggs that become female worker bees.
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.
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.
Where are Drone Congregation Areas?
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.
They seem attracted to areas with high light. Choosing a location protected from winds and have no obstacles that would impede flight. Yet, they enjoy having a 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.
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.
Where to Find a Drone Congregation Area
If you get lucky, you may find a DCA – I never have but would dearly love it. Scientists use helium balloons containing queen pheromones (or a caged virgin queen) to aid in finding concentrated areas of drones.
Insect radars are another helpful tool in finding DCAs.
Another common indicator enjoyed by a few observant folks is finding an area with many dead drones on the ground. Just look up – LOL.
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.
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.
This is the term used to describe the shape of the many drones flying in the air in pursuit of a virgin queen.
Drones can fly several miles to a DCA if needed. However, they tend to prefer areas near the hive – within a mile or so.
They use visual cues and recognition of queen pheromones to find a queen in flight.