Appreciating The Drone Bee
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”. However, they are a vital member of any honey bee colony. Even the honey bee colony looks upon the drone as expendable. They are often raised on the edge of the brood nest because they are easily replaced. Why is this bee so under appreciated?
Most of the bees in a colony are females. All of the worker bees and the queen bee are females. The drone bee is the only male bee in the hive. Their life path is different from beginning to end. The drone bee does no work to sustain hive life, but honey bee survival depends on their existence.
What Does a Drone Bee Look Like?
A drone bee is often mistaken for the queen. This is because most people know that the queen is a larger bee. Drones are noticeably bigger than female workers. However, they lack the long pointy abdomen of the queen.
When looking for drones, you want to find bees with bigger, thicker bodies and round fuzzy rear-ends. Drone eyes are very large and cover the entire top of the head. They need great eyesight to watch for queens at mating time.
Life Cycle of the Drone Bee
Drones are different right from the beginning. Because they develop into a bigger bee than workers, they need a larger brood cell. A drone cell is slightly larger in diameter. And the capped drone brood will protrude from the surface of the comb. This gives drone brood the characteristic bullet shape. A section of drone brood looks similar to the smooth point of a bullet.
When a bee colony wants to raise drones, the queen will lay an unfertilized egg in a drone bee cell. Yes, the queen can lay an egg that is not fertilized with the semen stored in her body. This is called parthenogenesis.
The unfertilized egg will develop into a male bee or drone. Male bees are haploid, they have 16 chromosomes instead of 32 like their diploid sisters.
A drone bee goes through the same stages of insect development as the workers. The first stage is an unfertilized egg. Then, we have a larval (growing) stage. At the end of the larval stage, the cell is capped and the larva becomes a pupa. The fourth and final stage is the adult drone bee that emerges from the cell.
All honey bees go through these 4 development stages. For drone bees, their development timing is slightly different. Worker bees emerge as adults in 21 days but a drone bee requires 24 days.
This longer development time is one reason that varroa mites prefer drone brood. It gives the mite time to produce more baby mites inside the cell. High mite levels are only 1 cause for dead hives but they are a major cause.
Any colony with only drone brood is in big trouble. The beekeeper will need to intervene in hopes of saving the hive by providing a new queen.
Drone Brood Is Not Always Needed
In a normal colony, drone brood will appear in groups along the edges of the brood nest. This places them in the most vulnerable area. If freezing temps causes the cluster to contract, drone brood will be lost rather than workers.
In most colonies, you will only see drones in the warm season. 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.
Role of the Drone Bee
A drone bee has only 1 goal in life – to mate with a virgin queen. But, this does not happen inside the hive. Drones hang out inside the hive and do no work. They may help themselves to nectar in the comb or beg nurse bees to feed them.
Drone bees do not have a stinger because they have no need for one. They do not protect the hive. Drones are normally produced in the Spring and can live up to 4 months. Any drones still alive come Fall, will be thrown out and left to starve.
Why? The workers know that Winter is not a reproductive time. They don’t want to have to feed the drones all Winter. More drones can be easily produced in time for Spring mating. (More About Bee Types)
Do Drone Bees Leave the Hive?
Yes, they do fly outside the hive. On warm afternoons, drones will leave the hive and fly to a special area. (Drone Congregation Area) Hundreds of drones hang out here hoping a virgin queen will fly by. If one does, they chase the queen in mass and try to mate with her.
The lucky drone that catches and mates with the queen, dies. His reproductive organs are ripped from the body upon copulation. He falls to the ground dead. A queen will mate with 12 -20 or more drones during her time of mating.
Male bees who are not successful in mating continue to go out on every nice day looking for love. Well, until Fall comes and then they will eventually be thrown out.
Primary Benefit of Drones for A Bee Colony
The major role of the drone bee is to mate with a virgin queen. A well-mated queen stores the semen of many different drones. Because, she mates with more than one male bee. This allows for good genetic diversity in the workers bees that she produces. These are the healthiest colonies of bees. (Drones and Colony Health)
What Happens to Drone Bees in Winter?
Fall is not a good time of year for a drone bee. Rarely, a colony will keep a few drones inside all year. Normally, the workers will throw the drones out of the hive at some point in the Fall. These poor males are left outside to starve or freeze. They are no longer needed.
The Drone Bee Is Important
Drones are an important part of the honey bee colony. The major role of the drone bee is to mate with new queens. And their presence in the hive may have other benefits that we don’t even know yet.
For new beekeepers, the drone bee is often mistaken as a queen. The beekeeper is looking for a larger bee and there one is! Oh wait, there is another and another. Wait- I thought the colony only has one queen as a rule. Yep – you’ve been droned.
But you will get better in your search for the queen, I promise.
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