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The Drone Bee: Bad Boys in the Hive

Among the thousands of honey bees in a colony, most are female. But during the warm months, you will also likely find several hundred drone bees. A drone bee is male. Though they do no work associated with day to day hive life, they have an important role in the colony. They are responsible for mating virgin queens. If no males are available, new queens can not be produced and mated, the colony would cease to exist.

Drone bees with large eyes on front of hive with worker bees image.

Importance of Drone Bees in a Honey Bee Colony

The drone bee is an often-misunderstood member of the honey bee colony. Sometimes, we beekeepers think of them as a liability or “drag on colony resources”.  New beekeepers are sometimes led to believe that having them in the hive is a bad thing.

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This is completely untrue because for a balanced, well-fed colony with a good queen-producing drones is a sign of good health.

What Drone Bees do in the Hive

The drone does not do much inside the beehive. He basically rests and hangs out – waiting for a warm afternoon to fly out looking for queens.

He may help himself to a taste of honey from an open cell or he may wait for one of the house bees to bring it to him. (I could say something about that but I won’t ;))

Unlike worker bees, drones do no hive work . They do not forage for pollen or nectar. They do no jobs inside the colony such as rearing young, taking care of the queen or aid in the production of honey.

Drone Bees Often Viewed as Expendable

Even the other members of the honey bee colony look upon the drone bee as expendable. They are often reared on the edge of the brood nest. 

These males develop from eggs that have not been fertilized with semen. How amazing is that? The queen bee can lay unfertilized eggs that develop into adult bees. This is called parthenogenesis.

Because they receive no genetic material from a father, male bees are haploid. They have 16 chromosomes instead of 32 like their diploid sisters.

If the temperatures drop too low and the bee cluster contracts, bee brood on the outside edge may chill.  The drone brood is the first to die.

Why this flippant attitude towards the only male bees in the hive? It is because, they are easily replaced if they are lost. It is easy to make more of them when needed.

Drone honey bee on comb true story of drone bees and what they do image.

What Does a Drone Bee Look Like?

We rarely see males bees in the field but beekeepers are often able to see them during hive inspections.

A drone is often mistaken for the queen by beginning beekeepers. This is because most people know that the queen honey bee is a larger bee.

Drones are noticeably bigger than female workers. However, they lack the long pointy abdomen of the queen. When looking for a them, search for a bee with a thicker body and round fuzzy rear-end.

One of the most noticeable characteristic of a drone is the large eyes that cover the top of the head. They need great eyesight to watch for queen bees at mating time.

Drone honey bee with large eyes on blade of grass image.

Can Drone Bees Sting?

A drone honey bee can not sting. Because they have no role as protector of the colony, they have no need of a stinger.

Not having a stinger, honey stomach or pollen baskets like their worker bee sisters, this male honey bee is designed for mating only.

Are Males Bees Found in the Colony all Year?

Most colonies do not have drones present all year. When a bee colony wants to raise reproductive males, the queen will be prompted to lay unfertilized eggs.

When we see drone brood in early Spring, we know that bee swarm time is coming. Good patterns of drone brood are actually a good sign. It shows that your bee colony is strong enough to move toward swarming.

Characteristic bullet shaped drone brood in the hive image.

Drone Brood in the Hive

Drones get off to a different path than their worker bee sisters right from the beginning. Because they develop into a bigger bee, they need a larger brood cell. This gives them more room to grow to full size.

Their cell is slightly larger in diameter (across) but it must be longer too. Once capped, drone brood will protrude from the surface of the comb.

This gives capped drone brood the characteristic bullet shape.  These are sometimes mistaken for queen cells but they do not hang down from the comb.

Worker bees emerge as adults in 21 days from the egg being laid – but a drone bee requires 24 days from egg to maturity.

Drone Brood Attracts Varroa

The varroa mite is a major killer of honey bee hives. Mites reproduce inside the capped brood cells of honey bees.

Mites prefer drone brood. They have more time to produce baby mites inside the cell of males because the cells are capped longer.

A colony with large amounts of drone brood may be more susceptible to mite problems. The beekeeper must monitor closely.

When Drone Brood Signals Trouble

In natural situations, drone brood is located clusters along the edge of the brood nest.  A hive inspection should reveal a majority of worker brood.

Any colony with only drone brood is in big trouble.  Seeing only drone cells is a sign of a lost queen bee or one that has run out of semen. The beekeeper will need to intervene in hopes of saving the hive by providing a new queen.

Honey bees on a brood frame and a drone bee with noticeable larger eyes image.

Honey Bee Mating

On warm Spring and Summer afternoons, adult males fly from the hive to look for virgin queens. Honey bee mating does not take place inside the hive.

Mating takes place in the air with several males chasing any available queen. On average, the queen will mate with 12-20 different males.

This increased genetic diversity because the males are from numerous hives. Directly after mating in mid-air, the drone will fall to the ground and die.

Drones that do not successful mate with a queen return to the hive to try again another day. This continues during the warm season with unsuccessful drones having a life span of a month or two.

Demise of Male Honey Bees in Fall

Woe unto the drone honey bee who fails to fullfill his mission of mating with a queen. He will likely be unable to pass his genetic material to the next generation.

The honey bee colony does not need drones to mate with queens during Winter. So, why feed them? As Fall approaches, any remaining drones will be thrown from the hive and refused re-entry. There, they die. Bee life is hard.

FAQs About Drone Bees

What is the role of drones in the beehive?

A drone bee only has 1 job – to mate with a virgin queen. These male honey bees produce semen that is necessary for the production of fertile eggs.

Can drone bees feed themselves?

They do not have tasks to perform in the hive. However, young drones can help themselves to nectar stored in cells – older drones beg nurse bees to feed them.

When do drone bees die?

Drones are normally produced in the Spring and throughout the Summer. Those that successfully mate with virgin queens die shortly after.

Any left in the colony in Fall, are usually kicked out of the hive to die. The workers do not want to feed unneeded boys all Winter.

Does having drone brood in your hive attract mites?

No, as far as we know, even though mites are attracted to open drone cells – having drone brood in the hive does not attract mites from outside the hive.

A Few Last Thoughts About the Drone Honey Bee

Beyond mating with new queens, the presence of drones in the hive may have other benefits that we don’t even know yet. The drone population may be lessened during time of food shortages. And, they are normally denied the opportunity to over-winter.

However, their continued presence in the colony during the warm months is a sign of a honey bee colony that is taking no chances.

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