Did you know that most of the honey bees in a hive are female?
Unless you’re a beekeeper, you actually may have never seen a male honey bee. Drone bees are a small but important part of the honey bee colony that you’re unlikely to spot outside their hive.
Read on to learn all about the drone bee, how to identify them, and what purpose they serve for their colony and beekeepers.
What Is a Drone Bee?
The term “drone” refers specifically to a male bee.
They are responsible for allowing colonies to grow because only they are capable of mating with queen bees. In fact, this is just about their only contribution to the colony.
Since all worker bees are female, drones are the only way for the queen to have her eggs fertilized. Without them, a queen will not be able to create more workers, and the hive will not survive.
How Drones Are Different From Workers
There are many significant differences between drone bees and their female colony members in appearance, capabilities, and genetics.
It’s important for beekeepers to know the difference between workers and drones. Understanding which is which will help them understand what is going on in the hive.
Physical Characteristics Unique to Drone Bees
The most notable of those differences is their size and physical appearance. They’re much larger than workers without the same slender abdomen. Inexperienced beekeepers will often mistake them for intruding bumble bees because they look so fat and round compared to the workers.
Drone bee eyes are about twice as big as queen and worker eyes, meeting at the top of their head. They need these big eyes for better vision when they fly out to hopefully mate with a queen.
Because of their size, the brood cells drones emerge from are bigger than worker brood cells. They typically have a rounded cap instead of a flat cap. They also take a longer time to develop fully.
Unlike their many sisters, drones do not have stingers or venom sacks. If you’ve ever been stung by a honey bee, you can guarantee the culprit was a female worker.
Limited Drone Activities
Where foraging workers can be out and about all day, drone bees can only fly for about 20 minutes before they need to refuel. Even if they could fly far enough, drone bees can’t gather pollen or nectar.
Inside the hive, drones don’t contribute to building comb, storing resources, or making honey. They are also unable to feed themselves, so they rely on the workers for their daily survival.
Sounds like a pretty relaxed life!
Genetics of a Drone Bee
Drones are genetically fascinating because they don’t have a male parent, but they do technically have a “grandfather”.
Their only male DNA comes from the drone that mated with a queen (their “grandmother”), who then laid an egg that became a new queen. This second queen is the one who hatches the drone bee.
Drones are “haploid”, meaning that eggs that become drones aren’t fertilized. They have half the chromosomes of worker and queen bees.
Lifecycle of a Drone
Just like the other female bees in the colony, drones progress through the stages of egg, larva, pupa, and mature bee.
Drone bee eggs can be laid either by the queen or by workers since they aren’t fertilized. In a healthy hive, it’s usually the queen who lays all the eggs, whether they’re fertilized or not.
After 3 days, the egg will hatch, and it will become a larva. After 10 days, the drone cell is capped with the pupa inside so it can finish developing.
The average length of time from an egg to an emerging drone bee is about 24 days. Once they’re fully formed inside the cell, they will chew through the cap and join the colony.
Drones become fertile around 28-38 days old. This is the timeframe for them to head out and try to mate with a queen.
The End of a Drone’s Life
Drones have a pretty easy life, but that doesn’t mean they just get to hang around forever without contributing anything,
Drone bees can potentially live as long as 90 days but more typically will live for 30 to 55 days. They almost always die either after mating with a maiden queen or when the workers eject them from the hive.
Drones are kicked out of the hive when resources become scarce because they eat a lot. In the spring and summer, this will be during a dearth, a part of the year where nothing in the area is in bloom.
Heading into fall and winter is another time when the workers begin to watch their stores closely and won’t hesitate to give drones the boot.
Since they are unable to feed or protect themselves, they will die of exposure after they’re evicted by workers. By the time the cold weather hits and the bees are cooped up and cozy in the hive, there won’t be any drones left.
When the following spring season comes around, they will begin to reappear in preparation for new queens who need to mate.
A Drone’s Role in the Hive
A drone’s only purpose is to mate with a virgin queen from another colony. They have no other active role within the hive itself and must even be fed by workers.
They can sometimes assist in warding off threats by buzzing around potential intruders to intimidate them. They may also be part of regulating the internal temperature in the hive because they are larger and generate more heat.
At most, each colony can have as many as 200 drones in the hive at a time. Stronger hives will have more drone bees than weaker hives because they’re better equipped to support them with food and workers to feed them.
Mating with a Queen
When the time is right, a drone will fly to a “drone congregation area” to mate with a queen while in flight.
It’s unknown how these areas are designated, but this is how drones and queens are able to find each other.
Each drone can only mate with a single queen, and that’s only if they’re successful. Each queen will mate with up to 20 different drones and store their genetic material.
Once a drone has located a queen, he will fly above her and latch on. If he is successful, his reproductive organs will essentially explode, killing him soon afterward. It’s very rare for drones to make it back to their hive, and if they do, they don’t survive for long.
If a drone accidentally mates with his own queen, the workers know and will remove and eat the inbred larvae.
Benefits of Drones for Beekeepers
While drone bees have a very limited function in the hive, they can be one of many factors beekeepers use to assess and improve the health of a colony.
Varroa Mite Management
Many beekeepers will use drones as part of a varroa mite management system. Since drone cells are larger than worker cells and they pupate for longer, they often attract mites to sneak in before the cells are capped.
It’s common for beekeepers to take advantage of this by using “drone frames.” These are special hive frames with larger cells that the bees will use exclusively for drones.
The cells of drone frames will draw mites in, and once they’re capped, the beekeeper will destroy the entire frame. This ensures that the mites inside the cells aren’t able to emerge with the drone bees and continue to reproduce.
Insight into Hive Health
Drones can also tell the beekeeper something about the state of the hive.
For instance, if you notice that there are only drone cells in your hive, that likely means the hive is queenless. Workers can lay eggs, but those eggs aren’t fertilized and thus can only become drones.
When no queen is present, and they aren’t able to make a new one, workers will start laying their unfertilized eggs and raising brood. It’s a pretty visible way to see that the queen is gone because drones are normally raised in comparatively small numbers.
Another way for beekeepers to use drones is for queen marking practice. Many beekeepers prefer to have their queens “marked” to make them easier to spot, but the process is very delicate. Accidentally killing a queen while trying to mark her is a costly mistake.
Drones are a great stand-in for the queen until the beekeeper is more comfortable with marking. This is because they’re large, can’t sting, and are, for lack of a better term, fairly expendable.
Drone Bees Help the Hive Grow
Drone bees may not be the most active members of the hive, but they still serve a crucial function.
They enable the colony to reproduce, and they’re also a good indicator of what’s going on in the hive.
Interested in learning more about these miraculous pollinators? Visit my bees page to learn all about the different roles within the beehive, different bee species, beekeeping, and more!