Drone Bees are Often Unappreciated
The male honey bees in a colony are called drone bees. What is the role of the drone bee? Are drone bees essential to the honey bee colony? And, why should beekeepers develop a better appreciation for them?
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”.
Unlike worker bees, drones do no work . They do not forage for pollen or nectar. They do not aid in protecting the hive.
And they do not help in the production of honey. It seems that these male bees do not have a lot of variety in their lives.
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 bee cluster contracts, 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. However, they are still vital members of a honey bee colony.
Are Drone Bees-Boys?
Yes, a drone bee is a male honey bee. As the only males bees in the colony you might expect them to be great defenders of the beehive, right?
Sadly, no that is not how it works for bees. Drones 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.
The poor drones are vastly outnumbered and never get to make any colony decisions. 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 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 drone bees, search for 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 queen bees at mating time.
Mating is the only true function of our male honey bees. And, this ritual does not take place inside the hive.
Drones fly to “drone congregation areas” well away from the hive. Here they await the arrival of virgin queens. Mating takes place 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 Bee Colony Makes Drones
All honey bees develop from eggs. What is different about a drone egg? Absolutely nothing is different about the egg itself when it ripens in the queen.
It is action taken by the queen during the laying process that makes drone production possible. Drones develop from eggs that have not been fertilized with semen.
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-sized cell.
Drone cells are slightly larger than regular worker bee cells. This is, of course, because they need to hold a larger bee.
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. (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
While the development stages are the same, the timing is slightly different.
Worker bees (females) emerge as adults in 21 days from egg lay – but a drone bee requires 24 days.
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 especially 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.
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!
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 with some drone 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.
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.
Common Questions About Drone Bees
What is the Role of Drones?
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.
Can Drone Bees Feed Themselves?
Drones do not have tasks to perform in the hive. 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. Otherwise, they 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.
Do Male Bees Have Stingers?
No. They do not have a stinger because they have no need for one. Drone bees do not protect the hive or gather food. They are never expected to give their life for the colony.
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.
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.
What Happens When a Drone Mates a Queen Bee?
A drone catches and mates with the queen in flight. His reproductive organs are ripped from his 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.
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.
Drone Honey Bees – The Facts
- drone bees are important members of the colony
- without drones for fertilization of virgin queens – no workers would be born
- drones are the only male bees in the hive
- mating between drones and a queen bee does not happen inside the beehive
- these male bees do no work and usually perish before Winter
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.
The honey bee colony still keeps some secrets from humans. 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. Just in case something were to happen to the queen, males would be needed. This is another one of nature’s wonders of survival.
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.