Bee Drones: What You Don’t Know About Their Lifes

While worker bees and queen bees often steal the spotlight, bee drones are equally fascinating and deserve our attention. Let's delve deeper into the fascinating life of bee drones.

David Horstmann

— 8 min read

Guillaume PelletierCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Aaah yes, the male bees in a beehive. Bee Drones are living a life of luxury while the ladies do all the heavy lifting. They get fed like kings and then head out to mate. Shortly after hooking up with a virgin queen bee they die with a smile on their faces. What a waste of valuable resources and space in my beehives!”

What you have just read could not be farther from the truth. While worker bees and queen bees often steal the spotlight, bee drones are equally fascinating and deserve our attention. Understanding the different members of the honeybee societies I manage is essential for fostering thriving hives and ensuring the sustainability of my beekeeping practices.

In these comprehensive paragraphs, I will delve deeper into the physical characteristics of bee drones, their behavior, and the role they play in the hive. Whether you are a beekeeper like I am or simply interested in learning more about the world of bees, understanding bee drones is an important part of appreciating the complexity of a bee colony.

What are Bee Drones?

Anatomy of Bee Drones

Bee drones are male honeybees. Mainly, it is the anatomy that sets bee drones apart from worker bees. Drones are typically around 15 to 20% larger than worker bees. A drone will typically measure around 20 mm. Female worker bees come in at around 10 to 15 mm.

Drones also have more robust bodies, with stout abdomens and broader heads. One thing that is particularly striking is their eyes. Bee drones have large compound eyes that cover a significant portion of their head. This aids in their role as scouts during mating flights.

Another interesting fact is that drones lack a stinger, rendering them incapable of defending the hive. Mostly they just hang around. That essentially just makes them cute furballs with big eyes.

WaugsbergCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What is the Primary Purpose of Bee Drones?

Drones do not collect pollen or nectar, nor do they participate in hive activities such as cleaning or caring for the younglings. Instead, they are fed and cared for by the worker bees. As a result, they do not have the need to defend the hive from predators or intruders, which explains the lack of a stinger.

Although drones may not possess the intricate foraging abilities of worker bees, they still fulfill an essential role within the intricate social structure of the hive. The primary (you could say only) purpose is to mate with a queen, contributing to the propagation of the honeybee colony.

The Life Cycle of Bee Drones

Unfertilized Eggs

The early life of bee drones is a fascinating aspect of their development. Unlike worker bees and queens, drones are derived from unfertilized eggs, resulting in their unique genetic composition. Within the hexagonal cells of the honeycomb, drone cells can be distinguished from worker cells due to their larger size and distinct shape.

Drone Cells

The drone cells are rounded and slightly protruding, unlike the flatter worker cells. Once laid by the queen, the drone eggs undergo an incubation period of approximately 24 days before hatching. During this time, the hive diligently cares for the future male bees.

Nurse worker bees attend to the developing drone larvae, which aids in their growth and development. These larvae, destined to become bee drones, possess a unique characteristic known as haploidy.

Genetic Diversity

Bee drones possess a haploid genetic makeup. Haploid refers to the state of having a single set of chromosomes, in contrast to diploid organisms like worker bees and queen bees, which have two sets of chromosomes.

The haploid genetic composition of the bee drones is a direct result of being born from unfertilized eggs. Unlike worker bees and queen bees, which receive genetic contributions from both a male drone and the queen, drones only inherit genetic material from their mother, the queen bee.

This genetic diversity contributes to the overall health and adaptability of the honeybee colony. It enables the colony to better withstand environmental challenges, resist diseases, and exhibit traits that promote their survival and success. The haploid genetic makeup of bee drones not only fosters genetic diversity but also contributes to the fascinating phenomenon of drone congregation areas.

Why Drone Congregation Areas are Important

Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs) are specific locations where bee drones gather to mate with young queens. DCAs are fascinating places where thousands of drones gather from many different colonies. These areas are above the ground, suspended in the air. All honey bee mating takes place in these areas—never on the ground or in the hive.

By mingling with a wide range of drones, the virgin queens can guarantee the genetic variability essential for her hive. Venturing out to DCAs which are farther from her colony only boosts the chances of outcrossing.

How do Queen Bees and Bee Drones find Drone Congregation Areas?

Drones and queen bees usually start looking for DCAs in spring, when the water is starting to warm up. According to a study published in the journal Nature, bee drones and queen bees locate drone congregation areas (DCAs) using a combination of visual and olfactory cues. They queens only come to the DCAs after they have formed already.

The study found that drones release pheromones at the drone congregation area to attract other drones and queen bees. Virgin queen bees are particularly sensitive to these pheromones and use them to locate the DCA, along with visual cues such as the size and shape of the area.

The study also found that DCAs are typically located in open areas that are easily visible to drones flying overhead, and that drones may use landmarks such as trees or buildings to locate them.

Honey bee experts (Apiologists) aren’t sure how DCA boundaries are set up. However, one theory is that there are pheromones or chemical signals that drones release that attract other drones to the area. The harsh realities of honeybee life are revealed through the ensuing mating rituals in said congregation areas.

Bee Sex is Brutal

Bee sex can be described as quite, well, let’s just say «brutal.» Once a fortunate drone successfully mates with the queen, it faces a grim fate. The act of mating is fatal for the male bee. The bee drone’s reproductive organ, the endophallus is barbed, just like the stinger of a female worker. Upon an explosive ejaculation after an impressive 2 seconds, the edophallus is left inside the queen bee. It is forcefully torn from his body. It is left inside the queen upon an explosive ejaculation. This ultimately causes the demise of the bee drone.

However, the story of the drones doesn’t end there. The remaining surviving bee drones in the hives face a difficult time, too. After the mating season concludes, a significant shift occurs within the hive, marking a notable transition in the colony’s activities.

Drone Eviction

What occurs in honeybee hives towards the end of the season is a strategy used by worker bees to conserve resources and ensure the survival of the colony during the winter months. Drones do not contribute to the hive’s productivity during the winter, as they do not collect food or help with the hive’s maintenance.

Thus, worker bees may start to push the drones out of the hive, preventing them from returning. This process is known as drone eviction. The drones are left to fend for themselves. But they will not survive the winter. While this may seem harsh, it is a necessary step for the hive’s survival. The worker bees must ensure that they have enough resources to support the queen and the worker bees during the winter months when food is scarce.

By evicting the drones, the hive can conserve its resources and increase its chances of surviving the winter. To me, the process of drone eviction is just another great example of the complex social behavior that occurs within my honeybee colonies.

Bee Drones are a great example

So, what do you think after reading this blog post? Labeling drones as mere parasites in a bee hive is a grave misunderstanding. Bee drones are a great example that in nature every even so little animal has its purpose. To me, bee drones are a valuable reminder that with a bit of observation and closer understanding we can appreciate that even the smallest of beings have a profound purpose in the natural world.