How drone bees benefit the colony

Our “Newbee Questions, Expert Answers” series, takes the questions of a curious, fascinated, worried, perplexed and sometimes downright confused “newbee” and provides expert responses.

In this edition…

Mark has spent lots of time looking at the workers bees in his hive – and trying to find his queen. It’s all good. A few days ago he spotted a drone bee, distinguished by his size that almost seemed as large as the queen, but particularly by the huge eyes. Now Mark is interested – apart from that breeding flight, what is the point of the honeybee drone? Ron to the rescue, with some rather interesting drone bee facts.

Mark: I don’t understand what time of year queens mate. A new queen will go on a few mating flights soon after she is born, right? Given that a queen can be created by a colony at any time, does that mean the “mating season” is effectively any time of the year in which eggs can be laid and the colony has created a queen?

Ron: Colonies produce new queens for two basic reasons: to swarm or to replace a missing or inferior queen. Normally a queen is only produced in the spring and summer when there is a good nectar flow and drone bees are available for mating. Virgin queens spend approximately 6 days in the hive before spending two to three days on mating flights.

Mark: So, drones! Apart from the mating thing, do they do ANYTHING?

Ron: Ah, the poor honeybee drone, the butt of jokes and the deceiver of new beeks who often mistake them for queens. But let’s consider how a colony functions and we quickly see how each and every role is vital to the success of the colony.

Drone bees are a sign of a well fed, healthy colony and a healthy colony will want about 15 percent of the bee population to be drones. If you don’t see drones in your hive (in the summer) your colony likely has a problem and you should be looking into it.

Drones also provide genetic diversity, something that is vital not just to the survival of the species but particularly important at a time when honeybees are faced with serious threats from mites and disease. Without a healthy pool of drones to mate with a queen will be weak and failing from sperm deficiency.

Finally, drone larvae can be cannibalized by the colony and used as food source in times of a dearth.

Mark: If a drone bee is there to mate and for no other reason, does he fly from the hive only with the intention of finding a new queen who happens to be on a mating flight?

Ron: Correct. About six days after emerging drones begin to leave the hive on warm, sunny afternoons and congregate in the air at drone congregation areas. (DCA’s) They can fly for about four hours before using up their energy, necessitating a return to the hive to refuel. Drones can return to pretty much any hive without confrontation.

Mark: If that’s their only purpose, why are so many drone bees created by a colony?

Ron: I can’t say for sure, but genetic diversity is certainly a part of it and it is known that a healthy hive will want about fifteen percent of its population to be drones. Also, if a queen is to be properly bred she needs to mate with 12 to 15 or more drones.

Mark: Drones go to specific locations to mate with queens. How do they know where to go (given that previous drones died when they mated!).

Ron: It’s not known how they return to the same locations each year though there is a lot of speculation about it and it’s highly likely that both pheromones and geographic markers (undisturbed landscape, vegetation, topography, etc.) play a role.

Mark: Is it possibly to spot a mating location easily? Are there many drone bees around, all seeking to mate with a queen?

Ron: No they are not easy to find, though I have seen videos on the web that film the actual mating in mid-air.

Mark: What factors affect the percentage of drones in a colony?

Ron: You won’t find many drones in a colony that does not have good food stores. It takes a lot of resources to raise up a drone bee and if the colony is struggling they will forgo their production. The wise beekeeper will make note of the lack of drones and investigate to determine what the problem is.

Mark: Is there any evolutionary reason why drone bees have larger eyes?

Ron: Good question and I’m sure there’s more to it than I know, but there are a couple factors the drone must adapt to, to mate successfully. The first is that all their mating activity takes place during flight and the eyes are used for navigation to make note of land marks. Secondly, since they are in motion all the time they need excellent eye sight to detect a queen that flies into the area.

Mark: Drone bees provide no value whatsoever to the actual colony in which they live, right?

Ron: As I noted above, every aspect of colony life is valuable and necessary to successfully sustain a healthy hive.

Mark: If that is true, why do workers wait until fall before kicking drone bees out?

Ron: They are useful until that time of the season when they are no longer needed for breeding and when the hive is reducing its numbers in preparation for winter.

Mark: I read that the reason workers live for only a few weeks normally (but 3-5 months in the winter) is that they literally work themselves to death. What actually happens – do they just die or does a specific body part (wings?) fail on them?

Ron: They simply wear out. It is said they have a 500 mile odometer on them.

Mark: I had 10,000 bees in my hive when I installed my package of bees. Two months later I assume every single bee in the hive, apart from the queen, is a new bee (I find this fascinating!). Apart from a few, I hardly ever see dead bees. Where do all the original ones go to die? Do they die away from the hive or do they get taken out of the hive after they die?

Ron: Only a small percentage of the bees die inside the hive. Most will chose to die away from the hive to help keep it clean and disease free.