The Vital Role the Drone Plays in the Beehive

Fascinating Drone Honey Bee Facts

The Vital Role the Drone Plays in the Beehive

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Despite their reputation as the laziest members in the beehive, it could be argued that drones carry the key to our honey bees’ long-term survival. Without them, nearly every aspect of a honey bee colony would cease to exist within a short period of time, making drones just as vital as the queen herself. Here are some fascinating drone honey bee facts that may cause you to see drones in a more favorable light. 

The Drones Purpose  

Every individual within a hive has a role to play. The queen releases pheromones that keep the colony functioning as a single, cohesive unit and lays eggs to ensure the continued existence of the hive. Worker bees not only collect nectar, pollen, water, and propolis, but defend the hive against intruders, build comb for brood and food resources, tend to the queen, clean the hive, feed the larvae, and much, much more.  

Drones, on the other hand, seem to have it easy as their only function appears to be eating and mating with virgin queens from other hives. The drone’s very anatomy prevents him from taking part in any other hive responsibilities. Larger than the worker bee and fatter than the slender queen, drones lack the stinger, pollen baskets, and wax-producing glands necessary to perform the worker bee’s tasks. Instead, a drone boasts much larger eyes and longer legs than females which enable him to quickly spot a virgin and securely grasp her in mid-flight for copulation — the perfect anatomy for his sole purpose. 

Larger than the worker bee and fatter than the slender queen, drones lack the stinger, pollen baskets, and wax-producing glands necessary to perform the worker bee’s tasks.

Drone Congregation Areas 

Drones, on average, live a mere 30-55 days according to most experts. During that brief lifespan, each healthy drone leaves the nest multiple times a day and flies to a drone congregation area (DCA) where hundreds of other drones from surrounding colonies join together in search of virgin queens. When a virgin is spotted, hundreds of drones chase after her, forming a drone comet. But only the fastest, strongest and most nimble drone reaches the queen and wins the privilege of mating with her—and then dies a rather explosive death as the very act of mating causes his endophallus to be ripped from his body. All of the weaker, less robust drones remain at the end of the drone comet, keeping their DNA out of the gene pool. 

Drones and virgin queens go together. This photo shows the bullet-shaped capped drone brood, several drones, and a ripe queen cell.

And this is where the importance of drones comes into play.  

In order for a queen bee to be considered a “well-mated” queen, capable of producing a thriving, healthy colony, she must mate with between 10-20 different drones. Left unmated, she can only produce unfertilized eggs, which in turn produces only drones. With no worker bees in the mix, no nectar or pollen comes in, no brood can be fed, and the queen goes unattended, so the colony quickly dies unless a new queen is introduced or raised by any remaining workers. If, on the other hand, the queen is insufficiently mated with only a small number of drones, she may lay well initially and produce a thriving hive at the beginning of her reign, but she will quickly fail and be replaced by a newer queen. Either way, poorly mated queens spell hardship at best and complete hive loss at worst. So in order for a hive to thrive, the queen must be well-mated with multiple drones.  

Drone brood is bullet-shaped and larger than worker brood, often located around the bottom of the brood frames and in any damaged area of brood comb.

To help ensure she is well-mated, the queen herself flies to these DCAs to access multiple, unrelated drones, as queens do not typically mate within their own hive nor within their own apiary despite each colony maintaining a few hundred drones throughout spring and summer. By receiving the sperm from several unrelated drones, the queen takes those new genetics back to her hive — and your apiary — where she spreads that DNA amongst her progeny, thus creating a genetically diverse colony. And a genetically diverse colony has a higher chance of survival than a colony with a more limited gene pool, which in turn makes your apiary a stronger apiary that has a better chance at overall survival than an apiary with a limited gene pool. This transfer of genetics, when maintained properly, continues on an annual cycle that further assists in honey bee survival. 

The End of His Days 

What about those unsuccessful drones that never catch the prize? For a time, they are allowed to remain within the hive to continue making attempts at spreading the colony’s genetics through repeated trips to DCAs, provided there are plenty of food resources available to spare. However, as an area enters a dearth and again when days shorten and fall draws near, drones are unceremoniously removed from the hive by worker bees in an attempt to conserve as many resources as possible for the upcoming winter months.  

It is obvious when this yearly ritual takes place, as an observant beekeeper will notice reluctant drones being dragged out of the hive by worker bees. At times, it takes only a single worker to remove a drone, while other times it may take three or four if the drone is especially strong and unwilling. These outcasts will then be left to starve and/or die from exposure as guard bees keep watch to prevent these drones from re-entering the hive. But don’t be surprised if you open a hive mid-winter and see a small handful of drones hanging out inside as some colonies do allow a few drones to remain throughout winter provided there are ample stores to spare. 

While it is true that colony survival is dependent upon many different elements such as sufficient forage, manageable pest loads, and suitable housing, drones are perhaps the most vital element second only to the queen herself. Because without ample drones for mating, queens cannot mate well, resulting in weak, failing colonies with limited gene pools. The perfect recipe for a failing apiary.  

So, the question now is how do you anticipate creating a strong gene pool within your own apiary?  

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