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.

Drone Bee

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.


17 thoughts on “How drone bees benefit the colony”

  1. What would happen if a drone cell is identified and artificially fed with royal jelly for more than 3 days? Has this experiment ever been done?

    1. Juan, I am not aware of any experiments such as the one you have described above, but you may want to study up on haploid and diploid cells. There are two types of cells in the body – haploid cells and diploid. The difference between haploid and diploid cells is related to the number of chromosomes that the cell contains. A drone comes from an unfertilized egg and only contains half the number of chromosomes (haploid) as a diploid cell which contains two complete sets of chromosomes. In the case of the honeybee, a fertilized egg laid by the queen is diploid and has the potential to develop into a queen or a worker bee. The unfertilized egg from which a drone develops can only become a drone.

  2. I have top bar hives and noticed during my last comprehensive inspection a top bar almost completely full of capped drone brood and some open larva. This top bar is all larger cell size and is in the middle of the brood area. I’m wondering why the queen laid this much drone at this time of year and was wondering if I should cull and freeze this top bar both to use as mite control (although I don’t notice an accumulation of mites on the bottom) and to prevent the drones from consuming a lot of resources at the nectar is disappearing in this area now. I did not see any other capped drone in the hive. Your thoughts would be very appreciated.

    1. John, I see no reason why you couldn’t pull the bar and freeze it. Would help with mite control just as you suggest and should not negatively impact the hive at all. I don’t know if you have a new queen in this hive or not, but sometimes a new queen that has not been through a spring and the summer solstice will lay like it is summer much longer than an older queen. So that’s a possibility as well. Anyway, feel free to freeze it. Shouldn’t hurt a thing.

  3. I am just going into beekeeping, I am in Africa and our weather is different,we have just rainy season and dry(harmattan) season. so, please do you have an idea of the season of the year the drones get kicked out?

    1. Tarmee,
      Obviously I am not familiar with beekeeping in your part of the world, but there are some basic principles that I expect would apply to honey bees no matter where a person is located.
      Drones create a heavy demand for resources within the colony, both to raise them and to feed them. Therefore, any time the colony is stressed by a lack of resources or nectar flow the colony will be inclined to kick the drones out of the colony. If the nectar flow stops abruptly, honeybees will even cannibalize drone larva for the resources it contains.
      So the bottom line here is that drones are kept by the colony when resources are plentiful and are not maintained by the colony when resources run low.
      Thank you for your question.

  4. Nick,
    Mid-day is when you will see drones most active, so I suspect what you are seeing is normal activity. Its possible the swarm is re-queening an elderly queen, but you would not normally see a difference in drone activity unless she had left the colony on a breeding flight. Then you would see a lot of drones upon her return to the hive.

  5. Many thanks for most helpful article.
    Almost 4 busy months after capturing my swarm colony and no sign of drones, today (after being away for 8 days) I have been getting about 6 drone takeoffs and landings per minute for 20inute observation periods (around midday) – I suppose that there is likely to be a re-queening in progress?

  6. Good point Ray! Just a couple days ago I watched a bee fighting with a yellowjacket on the ground in front of the hive. A honeybee does not usually win a one on one fight with a yellowjacket and I assumed the yellowjacket had already been beaten up when trying to enter the hive and this one honeybee was attempting to haul it off.

    They wrestled on the ground for a while and then the honeybee eventually managed to fly off with the yellowjacket. The light was just right so I could watch it leave and it flew out of sight (at least 30 yards) still carrying the yellowjacket away from the hive.

    Good point on the dead bees in a hive as well. When we do deadout inspections late winter/early spring that’s always one of the things we look at and discuss.

  7. To expand on the above comments…Honeybees have two sets of wings. These wings are connected by tiny velcro-like hooks (hamuli) that break and wear out from constant use. Eventually, so many get broken that the wings cannot be used, and the bee and usually dies shortly afterwards. Bee have short lives in the summer, when they are hard at work, and much longer lives in the winter. WORK WILL KILL YOU, AVOID IT IF POSSIBLE.
    Dead bees in the hive… Any bee that dies inside the hive is taken away from the hive by other bees. You can often see a bee take a dead bee 30 ft or more from the hive before dropping it. This long distance drop helps reduce the chances that if the dead bee had a disease that it would not be spread in the hive. If you see lots of dead bees on the floor of the hive it means you have a serious problem, as a healthy hive will keep the majority of dead bees out of the hive.

  8. A few comments to expand on this excellent section on drones.
    1. DCA – drones are basically lazy and will not fly more than a hundred yards or so from their native hive. Queens, instinctively seem to know this and use this to their advantage to avoid interbreeding with the drones from her hive. Mating occurs 60+ feet above the ground, so the queen flies low when she leaves the hive until she gets out of range of the local DCAs and seeks out one further away to avoid the local DCAs.
    2. Use of drones. Nature abhors unnecessary excessses, so there must be an evolutionary reason for what appears to be excess drones. Recent research indicates that the drones help maintain the nestduftwarmebindung (critical temperature/moisture/pheromone level) in the hive, so their function is not solely for seeking out virgin queens, which takes up less than half an hour of their busy drone day.
    Excellent observation by Evan. Beekeeping is logical, so your insight is very credible.

  9. Drones are accepted into most colonies. And it sounds as if they are returning to refuel. This is part of the equation of how mites get transferred from colony to colony.

    Another time you could see a lot of drones at your hive is if the colony has re-queened itself. When a queen comes back from a breeding flight there are often a lot of drones chasing after her and following right back to the hive. If it seems like a lot more drones than what you normally see its possible your colony had a supercedure and the queen was replaced.

    If you read the literature (much to detailed to go into it here) you will see how its rare that queens breed with drones from their own colony. There are some built in be mechanisms that work against inbreeding. While its possible, its not very common.

  10. Carrie Washburn

    So today I went out to my garden hive and it seems that there are a LOT of drones (or some odd looking hornet that sounds like a fly) coming and going from the hive. The “worker” bees all seem to be huddled in one are of the hive entrance. Are they coming back from the congregation to “refuel” – can they mate with their own queen – or maybe a lot of non-hive drones are replenishing at my hive?

  11. Evan, I find this fascinating. Now of course the scientists in bee land will question if they only do this under a blanket because you had no control hive. But I’m finding it quite plausible. I’ve never read about this, but I find bees to be very ingenious little creatures so if you saw it, I would have to say I believe it.

    Bees are very efficient and make the best use of all resources and that includes labor. So who says its not possible.

    Great observation Evan!

  12. I watched my bees (under a blanket instead of hive top and arranged so I could see what was going on) for a whole afternoon to see what the drones were doing.
    I’m not sure if all bees do what I witnessed with my Buckfast (and even took photos of but need new ones after my hard drive fried. Unfortunately there hasn’t been a chance this season)
    Anyway, I witnessed drones being herded to the pollen cells (3-4 workers to 1 drone), once there the drone used it’s much longer rear legs to stamp the pollen down into the bottom of the cell.
    If you take into account that drones have much longer and stronger rear legs & egg laying workers lay their eggs halfway upp the cell wall, drones packing pollen into cells seems logical so maybe not just my bees.

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