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What are Drone Congregation Areas?

Drone honey bees are the males of the colony. They leave the hive on warm afternoons. They are not busy working to bring back food. But, their task is no less important because the continuation of bee life depends on them. Mature drones fly to specific locations where they gather and wait – hoping to mate with virgin queens. These spots are called drone congregation areas (or DCAs).

Large drone bee rests in a congregation area for mating.

Role of Drone Congregation Areas in Bee Reproduction

The drone congregation area is a honey bee thingBee reproduction is am amazing thing. And, most people are surprised to learn that honey bees do not mate inside the hive.  Even though, drones live in the hive with virgin queens – no mating takes place.

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Instead, sexually mature drones fly to these special areas to wait for virgin queens to fly by. Flights normally take place on warm, fair afternoons.  The male bees may return to the hive to rest or stop by another hive to have refreshments before heading out again.  Most drone mating flights take please between 2 – 5 pm

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

Drone honey bee leaving hive for afternoon mating flight.

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.

Drone Comet Chases Queen

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. 

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 the queens pheromones.

The swarm of drones takes off chasing the queen, their bodies form a comet shape trailing behind her.  They follow her around the area attempting to mate.  If the queen leaves the DCA, the drones do not follow 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. As semen is ejected the drone falls back.  His reproductive organs breaks off and he falls to the ground to die.

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The next drone will attempt to remove the “mating sign” left behind by his predecessor and perform his own act. The queen receives over 6 million sperm from each of these encounters. 

She 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.

Size and Shape

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

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.

Where are Drone Congregation Areas?

Researchers do not know how bees find a drone congregation area.  But, some guess that the 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 bee 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 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 bees.

Perhaps one day we will have a breed that offers even better resistance to varroa mites or other health issues that plague our bees.

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.

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