Why Drones Are Necessary

Have you ever put much thought into the male honey bee? We hear so much about the queen and worker bees, but what about their important male counterpart? The drone is a fascinating creature from his birth to mating to death.

Drones are the larger bees hanging around hives. They live there during the spring and summer but regularly leave to find Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs), in the hope of being part of a mating flight.

A primary focus for a drone is to mate with a queen. He waits high above the ground in a drone congregating area. If a queen flies by only slightly outside of the radar of this congregating area, she will go undetected. However, if she flies by and is noticed by a drone there's a chance of a mating encounter.

During this mating activity, hundreds or even thousands of male bees will compete to mate with a queen. They don’t fight. They simply see who can fly closest to successfully mate.

How many drones will mate with the queen?
About 10-20 drones will mate with a queen during a mating flight.

When you become familiar with the somewhat narrower role of the drone (as compared to the worker, at least) remember this - the drone offers genetic diversity.

This is an essential and fundamental requirement for any successful colony. A queen only mates during one brief period in her early life, over the course of a small number of mating flights. She will mate with drones from numerous colonies, which broadens the genetic pool. This generally has positive benefits, such as a greater ability to resist disease.

The greater the genetic diversity of sperm collected by the queen...
...the greater the chance of the colony of surviving.

Drones are considered often considered "layabouts" when it comes to work around the hive. In comparison to the furious industry of worker bees, they are indeed rather sedate! However, when temperatures rise in the hive all bees, including drones, may help with the cooling effort by flapping their wings.

Drones serve a purpose to beekeepers as well. When you star seeing drones in the early spring it is important to take note, because swarm season has begun. Queens will not leave their hives if there is no way for them to mate. However, as soon as you see drones appear this means she has someone with which to mate and will begin looking to start her own family.

Anatomy of a Drone

How do you recognize drones? Drones are easy to spot because of their unique appearance. Drone honey bees weigh about as much as the queen bee but have some clear differences.

The drone is stumpier than the queen. He has a thick abdomen and long legs, though you can’t tell that so easily because his stomach hides them.

Drone bee

His stomach is more of a box shape, but his head is very round. Because of the round shape of his head, his eyes seem closer.

Drones have much larger eyes, which is their most distinguishing factor. A drone’s wings are also very large and cover his stomach completely.

As mentioned earlier, the drone’s purpose is to mate with a queen. He has an appendage tucked within him that he will protrude when mating with a queen.

How Drones Are Born

From Egg to Birth

The queen bases her fertilization decision upon the size of the cell built by workers. This, in turn, is determined by the hive's need for each caste. Drone cells are larger, so the queen knows to lay unfertilized eggs there.

Who can lay a drone egg?
A drone is the only caste of bee whose eggs can be laid by either the queen or a worker. This is because the drone eggs are not fertilized.

It should also be noted that drones have a grandfather, but no father. Since drones comes from an unfertilized egg, they only receive their genetic components from the queen. Yet, because the queen is female, her own egg was fertilized so she had a father - which was the drone's grandfather.

Once the eggs are laid, workers will feed royal jelly. Drones and worker bees only receive royal jelly for the first 2-3 days. This ensures they get the protein needed to kick start their development. After the third day, they are fed bee bread, which is a hearty mixture of honey and pollen. After a drone's development through larva and pupa stages is complete - in 24 days - it will hatch.

Drone Cells

How do you recognize a drone cell? It is pretty easy.

Drone cells are generally laid in proximity to each other, usually towards the bottom of the frame. A drone cell is larger in diameter and the cap appears higher and more rounded at the top, in comparison to a worker bee cell.

As a beekeeper, it is important to keep a close eye on drone brood. Mites prefer to feed on drones because they take longer to hatch and mites love the comfort - and easier food source - of the capped cell. In fact, drone cells also take a little longer to be capped, so this gives the mites a longer period to reproduce.

Drone cells are shaped like bullets. The image below illustrates this - note the cells around the drone that is hatching, as well as the size of his eyes.

Drone hatching from cell

Reproductive Role and Genetic Diversity

The drone lives for successful mating session, but he offers more than the ability to mate with a single queen. The manner in which drones mate with queens offers the essential benefit of genetic diversity.

Female honey bees have a total of 32 chromosomes, half of which come from the queen and half from the sperm of a drone. By comparison, the drone only has 16 chromosomes. When he releases sperm, he provides all of his genetics to the future (possible) females.

For a hive to have a greater chance of being strong and resilient, the queen mates with multiple drones for a greater sperm selection. The 10-20 drones that succeed in mating with a queen must compete with hundreds or thousands of other drones, depending upon the population at the drone congregating area.

End of Life for Drone Bees

Death by Mating

When a drone mates with a queen and releases his semen, it happens with such a force that his endophallus is ripped from his abdomen. When his abdomen rips open he usually dies shortly after.

When a drone mates with a queen...
...he generally won't survive!

Kicked Out of the Hive

You might think that most drones die because of sex, but this is not the case. In the fall, when foraging becomes scarce, drones become just another mouth to feed, but without contributing to the hive. Therefore, worker bees kick drones out of the hive, leading to their death.

The worker bees will starve the drones to weaken them, then escort them to the hive entrance and throw them out of the hive. The drones die from hypothermia or starvation.

14 thoughts on “The Role of the Drone Bee

  1. So if male bees get kicked out is it possible for him to become a working part of the hive like workers.
    Also are they all important do they have any benefits other than mate and be picked on by everyone?

  2. The life of the drone article was good I’m wondering what information is passed by drones to other drones as to hive growth timing of queen movements? Drones pretty much move in and out of different hives at will so I think that drones add more than the next generation .

    • Rick,

      There is essentially no information passed between drones. Drones do not communicate in the hive like the worker bee does when it dances on the comb to pass along information regarding water or food sources. Drones live a very short time, 6 to 8 weeks and spend most of their time in Drone Congregation Areas (DCA’s). DCA’s are places in the air where they congregate to wait for a queen. They have about 4 hours of flight time before they must return to a hive to refuel. Drones find DCA’s by horizon, tree lines and a combination of other factors. This information does not have to be communicated. Often times a cloud of drones will follow a queen back to her colony after she has been mated.

      Drones are not assimilated into a hive like a worker bee. They do not do work within the hive such as rearing young, storing nectar and pollen or cleaning the hive. They do not produce wax so they are not involved in capping cells or building comb. Because they do not contribute to work within the hive they are just one more mouth to feed when it comes time for the colony to prepare for winter and consequently they are kicked from the hive. It should be noted that drone larva can and will be used as a food source if the colony runs low on food.

      Healthy drones are needed to assure genetic diversity and healthy queens. One of the consequences of colonies being exposed to chemicals are unhealthy drones which can lead to poorly mated queens. So although drones are often made the butt of so many beekeeping jokes, without healthy drones the future success of the honeybee is at risk. As with every part of the honey bee colony, each plays a specific role and when one is disrupted the colony is put at risk.

      Thank you for your question and I hope that information is helpful to you.

  3. Why do queens not meet with the local hive drones? The lesson just said that the queen went out to the drone concentration area and mated and I understand the diversity but what keeps a queen for meeting with a drone from the same height?

  4. I am a newbee and will get my bees in spring. This course is very enjoyable. I have one suggestion to help us newbees. Since I have not gotten to work hands on yet with a hive, I have tried to study the pictures. It would be great to have a short video of the bees, telling us to look for the drone or the unmarked queen, give some time to try finding it and then show us where they are. I ask for video because I have read/heard the queen moves differently and once you recognize the different movement of the queen you will be able to pick her out. However there doesn’t seem to be any of these types of videos available. Also maybe show the guard bees at work. Or the ones that you are suppose to watch out for when opening the hive and smoke them….the ones that look like they are watching you. Thank you for this course!

  5. Glad Im a worker not a drone.another great lesson.I hope we can go back over these lessons over time after I get hive to refresh memory.

  6. as a male working in pipeline construction, the lives and habits of drones cause moments of intense self reflections and deja-vue. Awesome.
    Last year I became a NewBee in Washington County TX with the great help of the Brenham Bee club, and after a few months of intense caution I have learned to truly respect life in and around the hives.

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