Who needs drones?
When we think of bees, we hear a lot about the queen and the worker bee, but the drone often goes unmentioned. Even if we do notice drone cells, it often brings a negative reaction. To many, the drone is considered a worthless hive resident consuming large amounts of honey rather than producing honey. In reality, the drone is very important to the colony.
The drone is the male honeybee, the large bee that hangs around the hive in the spring and summer. The drone comes from an unfertilized egg. He has no father, but he does have a grandfather. He is easy to spot because of his unique appearance. He weighs as much as the queen but he is stubby and plump. His abdomen is more square shaped than workers and his head is round. He doesn’t guard the colony, so he has no stinger. He doesn’t forage so he doesn’t have pollen baskets. He doesn’t make comb, so he has no wax glands. But he has two very distinct features that give evidence to his sole focus – to mate with a virgin queen. His wings completely cover his body and his eyes are very large. His large wings enable him to fly far to a “drone congregation area” (dca) and his large eyes and antennae help him locate a queen that ventures to the dca. The dca is an area in the air where drones from many hives wait for the possibility of mating with a virgin queen.
When you think of the drone, he appears to be a useless bee that eats a lot and does little else. In reality, the drone is important to the colony in a very essential way - providing genetic diversity. This is a very basic requirement for a successful colony. A virgin queen only takes a small number of mating flights to the dca during a brief period. She will mate with drones from several colonies other than her own which expands the genetic pool. When the queen lays an egg, if she fertilizes the egg, she adds the genetics of the drone to her own. The result of this open mating is to create what is affectionately called “mutts’. This typically has a positive benefit such as a greater ability for the colony to resist disease. (An interesting note, since the drone is from an unfertilized egg, the drones from a laying worker or a drone layer queen can still mate successfully with a queen although it is does not produce a high quality offspring.)
When you purchase regular foundation, there is no provision for drone cells. Although foundation does not provide a place, if given an opportunity, the workers will draw drone cells. Beekeepers that use foundation-less frames or starter strips will notice the bees have added drone cells. Put a medium frame of foundation in a deep hive and the bees will draw comb on the bottom of the frame which frequently includes drone cells. If there is a damaged spot in comb, the bees may repair it with drone comb. The bees are telling you, drones are necessary in the colony. Some well-known beekeepers have reported that a colony will be more productive if there is a normal number of drones in the hive.
We have already said the drone doesn’t serve any purpose in the hive but that is not quite true. If the hive is hot, the drones may join the workers flapping their wings to help cool the hive. Drones also serve a purpose for beekeepers. When you start seeing drones in the early spring it is the first clue that the colony is preparing to swarm. Queens will not leave their hives if there is no way for them to mate. Also, if you see only drone cells, it is evidence that the colony does not have a queen.
The life of the drone may be eating and mating, but either way it is short. When a drone mates with a queen, he likely will not survive. As he withdraws, a portion of his sexual organ remains in the queen and he falls to his death. It appears that at least his last moments are exciting. Even that is not true for most drones. In fact, less than one percent of drones are successful in mating. As the days become shorter in fall and foraging becomes more limited, drones are just another mouth to feed. Since mating season is over, the worker bees kick the drones out of the hive, which leads to their death. It is rare to find a drone in the colony during the winter months. But come spring, the bees will once again draw drone cells in preparation for the mating season.
Photos courtesy: irishexaminer.com, Alex Wild