Importance of Drone Bees in the Hive

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Roles of Drone Bees in a Bee Colony

Inside a healthy Summer honey bee colony you will find a queen, workers and drone bees. The drone bees are the males of the colony. They do no work associated with day to day life inside the hive. However, the drone bee has an important role in the colony. As the only male bees, they are responsible for mating virgin queens. If no drones are available, new queens can not be produced and mated, bee life as we know it would cease to exist.

Drone bees with large eyes on front of hive with worker bees image.

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 no jobs inside the colony such as 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.

Drone Bee 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. 

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. Drones do not develop from fertilized eggs so it is easy to make more of them when needed.

However, they are still vital members of a honey bee colony and vital to survival of the species.

Drone honey bee on comb true story of drone bees and what they do image.

What Does a Drone Bee Look Like?

We rarely see drones in the field but beekeepers are often able to see drones during hive inspections.

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.

Honey bees on a brood frame and a drone bee with noticeable larger eyes image.

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. They also have large eyes that cover the entire top of the head.

Anatomy of Drone Bees

Basic bee anatomy applies to drone honey bees, as well as, other members of the colony. There are 3 major body sections: head, thorax and abdomen. Drones have 6 legs and 2 pairs of wings.

One of the most noticeable characteristic of a drone bee is the large eyes that cover the top of the head. They need great eyesight to watch for queen bees at mating time.

Because the drone bee does no foraging, he does not have pollen baskets or a honey stomach. Instead, this male bee is equipped with internal male reproductive organs that allow him to breed with queens.

As the only boy bees in the hive, you might expect drones 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.

Can Drone Bees Sting?

There is little a drone could do to ward off hive predators. 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 mating.

How Drone Bees are Produced

Drone bees 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.

When Do Drone Bees Appear?

Most colonies do not have drones present all year. When a bee colony wants to raise drones, workers clean drone sized cells. Then, the queen will be prompted to lay unfertilized eggs there.

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.

Life Cycle of the Drone Honey Bee

As the warm season approaches in early Spring, most colonies will begin to raise some drones. These developing larva have the same needs of other types of brood. They must be kept warm and fed well.

Stages of Drone Development

A drone honey bee goes through the same stages of insect development as worker bees or queens.

  • 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 emerge as adults in 21 days from the egg being laid – but a drone bee requires 24 days from egg to maturity.

Drone Brood

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.

Characteristic bullet shaped drone brood in the hive image.

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.

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.

A colony with large amounts of drone brood may be more susceptible to mite problems. The beekeeper must monitor closely.

There are many ways to control varroa mites in honey bee colonies. 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.

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.

Honey Bee Mating

On warm Spring and Summer afternoons, adult drone honey bees fly from the hive to look for virgin queens. Honey bee mating does not take place inside the hive.

Mating takes place in the air when several drones chasing any available queen. On average, the queen will mate with 12-20 different drones.

This increased genetic diversity because the drones are from numerous hives. 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.

Drone Bees and the Arrival of 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

What is the role of drones in the beehive?

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.

Can drone bees feed themselves?

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.

When do drone bees die?

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.

Does having drone brood in your hive attract mites?

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 honey bee with large eyes on blade of grass image.

Final Facts About Drone Bees

Beyond mating with new queens, the presence of drones in the hive may have other benefits that we don’t even know yet. Having drone present , in season, seems to boost the morale of the colony.

Perhaps the bees know that things are normal when drones are present during the time of mating.

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.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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