Why Does a Hive Need Drone Bees?
The male honey bees in a colony are called drone bees. Drones do no work associated with day to day life in the hive. What is the role of the drone bee? Are they really important to the colony? It’s a fact of bee life that each member plays an important part in sustaining the colony. Therefor the male bees are important too!
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 no jobs to do inside the colony in rearing young or taking care of the queen.
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 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.
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 not fight to protect the colony. In fact, there is little they could do to ward off a predator beyond buzz around the face. A drone bee can not sting.
Not having a stinger, honey stomach or pollen baskets like their worker bee sisters, drones are only needed for bee reproduction. Their sole purpose (that we know of) is to mate with virgin queen bees.
What Does a Drone Bee Look Like?
We rarely see drones in the field because they do not forage. Beekeepers are often able to see drones when inspecting the hive.
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.
Life Cycle of the Drone Honey 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 (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. Capped drone cells look very similar to the point of a bullet. These are sometimes mistaken for queen cells but they do not hang down from the comb.
How A Bee Colony Makes Drones
All honey bees develop from eggs. Drones develop from eggs that have not been fertilized with semen.
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.
Most colonies do not have drones present all year. When a bee colony wants to raise drones, worker clean drone sized cells. Then, the queen will be prompted to lay drone eggs.
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.
Mites prefer drone brood. They have more time to produce baby mites inside the cell of drones because the cells are capped longer.
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.
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.
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.
Scattered patches of drone brood here and there with empty cells intermixed can mean a problem with your queen bee. Further inspection is needed to verify her status.
Common Questions About Drone Bees
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.
Drones 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. Drones that successfully mate with virgin queens die shortly after.
Any drones left in the colony in Fall, are usually kicked out of the hive to die. The workers do not want to feed unneeded drones all Winter.
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.
In either case, we must have drone brood as it is an important part of the colony.
Drone Bee Facts
- 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
Drone Bees are Important Members of the Colony
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.
Just in case something were to happen to the queen, males would be needed. This is another one of nature’s wonders of survival and the drone honey bee is necessary to bee life.