A Drone Bee – Unappreciated & Misunderstood
What is the role of the drone bee? They do no work inside the colony. Are drone bees essential to the honey bee colony? Why do our colonies use precious energy to raise drones?
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”.
Even the honey bee colony looks upon the drone bee as expendable. They are often reared on the edge of the brood nest. If the temperatures drop too low and the cluster contracts? The drone brood is the first to die.
Why this flippant attitude towards drones? Because they are easily replaced. However, they are vital members of a honey bee colony.
Are Drone Bees Boys?
Yes, a drone bee is a male honey bee. Drone bees do no work to sustain the bee colony. They do not have a stinger, honey stomach or pollen baskets.
The sole purpose (that we know of) is to mate with virgin queen bees. While this does not help the bee colony survive on a day to day basis – it is a vital part of honey bee survival.
Most of the bees in a colony are females. All of the worker bees and the queen bee are females. The poor drones are vastly outnumbered and never get to make any suggestions. Their life path is different from their sisters -beginning to end.
What Does a Drone Bee Look Like?
A drone bee is often mistaken for the queen by beginning beekeepers. 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.
Also, drone eyes are very large and cover the entire top of the head. They need great eyesight to watch for queens at mating time.
Mating does not take place inside the hive. Drones and queens mate well away from the hive – in the air!
Life Cycle of the Drone Bee
Drones get off to a different path than their worker bee sisters right from the beginning. Because they develop into a bigger bee than workers, they need a larger brood cell. This gives them more room to grow to full size.
A drone cell is slightly larger in diameter (around) 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. Capped drone cells look very similar to the point of a bullet.
How A Colony Makes Drones
Most colonies do not have drones present all year. When a bee colony wants to raise drones, the queen will lay an unfertilized egg in a drone bee cell.
After worker bees have cleaned the drone-sized cells, the queen measures the diameter with her front legs and lays a single unfertilized egg in each cell.
How amazing is that? The queen bee can lay eggs that are not fertilized with semen stored in her body. (This is called parthenogenesis.)
The unfertilized eggs develop into male bees or drones. Male bees are haploid, they have 16 chromosomes instead of 32 like their diploid sisters.
Stages of Drone Bee Life Cycle
A drone honey bee goes through the same stages of insect development as worker bees or queen.
- egg (unfertilized for drones)
- larva (growing stage)
- pupa (the cell is capped and the larva become a pupa)
- adult drone bee emerges
All honey bees go through these 4 development stages. For drone bees, their development timing is slightly different. Worker bees (females) emerge as adults in 21 days from egg lay – but a drone bee requires 24 days.
Longer Development Time of 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. Varroa are attracted to the longer “capped – pupa” stage of drone development.
Mites prefer drone brood. They have more time to produce baby mites inside the cell. High mite levels are only 1 cause for dead hives but they are a major cause.
Some beekeepers use special drone cell size foundation to encourage drone production and to trap mites in one place. The sealed drone brood is removed and frozen to kill mites.
This is a workable plan but it is labor intensive for the bees and the beekeeper. And, you can not forget to take the frame out at the proper time – otherwise you have raised a nice batch of mites!
In natural situations, drone brood is located clusters along the edge of the brood nest. Any colony with only drone brood is in big trouble.
If no female workers are being produced, colony strength declines quickly. The beekeeper will need to intervene in hopes of saving the hive by providing a new queen.
When Do Drone Bees Appear?
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.
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.
Role of the Drone Bee
A drone bee has only 1 goal in life – to mate with a virgin queen. These male honey bees carry semen that is necessary for the production of fertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs develop into worker bees necessary for colony survival.
Can Drone Bees Feed Themselves?
They do not hive chores. But may help themselves to nectar in the comb or beg nurse bees to feed them. Leaving the hive on warm afternoons to look for queens.
Mating takes place outside the hive. Drones hang out inside the hive, eat and rest.
When Do Drone Bees Die?
Drones are normally produced in the Spring and can live up to 4 months. Drones that successfully mate with a queen- die shortly after. 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 Sting?
No. Drone bees do not have a stinger because they have no need for one. They do not protect the hive or gather food.
Drones are basically flying semen (genetic material) in search of a queen. They do have value, without them no fertilized eggs could be laid by the queen.
Do Drone Bees Leave the Hive?
Yes, they do fly outside the hive. No mating taking place inside the bee hive.
On warm afternoons, drones will leave the hive and fly to a special area. Researchers call this spot a “Drone Congregation Area. We do not know how bees find them!
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.
What Happens When a Drone Mates a Queen Bee?
Honey bee mating occurs in flight. 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 and dies.
A honey bee queen will mate with 12 -20 or more drones during her time of mating (a few days). Once the special structure inside her abdomen (spermatheca) is full – she will never mate again.
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 because Winter is not a normal queen production period.
Why are Drone Bees Important?
Drones are an important part of the honey bee colony. Beyond mating with new queens, their presence in the hive may have other benefits that we don’t even know yet.
New beekeepers, don’t feel bad if you mistake the drone bee for 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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