Among the thousands of honey bees in a colony, most are female. But during the warm months, you will also likely find several hundred boys in the hive. 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.
Important Role of Drone Bees
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
They do 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.
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.
They are 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.
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.
Drone Brood in the Hive
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.
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, the 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.
Varroa Mites Prefer Drone Brood
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.
Why Does my Colony Have so Many Drones?
In natural situations, drone brood is located clusters along the edge of the brood nest. The amount of drones in any hive is determined partly by genetics.
However, 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.
Likewise, seeing a very large percentage of drones in the colony is not cause for panic – however check carefully to ensure the presence of worker brood too.
The number of drones in a colony varies with season, weather conditions and genetics. Seeing over a thousand in a strong colony in Spring is not unusual.
Reproductive Role of the Drone Bee
Drones are mature and fertile starting at about the age of 10 – 12 days. Honey bee mating does not take place inside the hive.
On warm sunny afternoons, adult males fly from the hive to look for virgin queens. These areas where drone bees gather are called drone congregation areas. This continues throughout mating season. Mating takes place in the air with several males chasing any available queen.
While in flight, the drone bee grasps the queen with all 6 legs. If she opens her sting chamber, the drones penis everts and semen is ejaculated into the queen. The male becomes paralyzed and tumbles backward.
On average, the queen will mate with 12-20 different males during her nuptial flights. This increased genetic diversity because the males are from different colonies.
What Happens to Drone Bees After Mating?
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
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.
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.
Drones are normally produced in the Spring and throughout the Summer. They may live several months – a bit longer than worker bees.
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.
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.
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.