Late winter is here at the apiary and for most beekeepers in the US this means a time for planning and prepping for the coming spring bee season. It’ll be all hands on deck for us at Queen’s Orders Honey in a few weeks as well so now’s a great time to talk about something that will have a HUGE impact on our spring hives. It’s something that all my hives have very little of now and no, it’s not honey. It’s drone bees!
The male honeybee aka drone is one of the most misunderstood and unappreciated members of a beehive. The main reason for this is because they do very little work in the hive. In fact, they really only have one job but it’s importance cannot be understated. Being that they have no stingers and cannot forage for resources, they are very limited in what they can do. In the place where female bees have stingers, drone bees have genitals. This should clue you in on their purpose in a hive.
That’s right, their primary purpose in life is to mate (carry on their genes) and die! While the female bees (workers) do all the other chores, ranging from guarding the hive to raising the young, the drones fly away from the hive everyday to find a mate. They fly to designated areas known as Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs) where thousands of other drones flock to in order to mate. Little is understood as to how these areas are established. Theories range from magnetic fields to pheromones. We just don’t know!
These flights can take up to three hours so it’s not uncommon to see drones resting on flowers. Once they reach their destination, they have to compete with all the other drones to mate with queens. If you thought getting there was hard, you haven’t heard the whole story! Just like any other species, it’s all about survival of the fittest! What defines fittest for drones? Flight speed! The drones that are able to catch the queen as she is flying in the DCA will mate with her.
For those of you that caught that, I did mean to type drones as the multiple drones can mate with one queen. Since they only mate once in their lifetime, they need enough sperm from these mates to last her years. In the process, all drones that mate with her will die. When the drones ejaculate, their penis grows to its limit and thus causes their internal organs to explode. They die shortly after their glorious moment mid-air and then fall back down to earth. Talk about going out with a bang!
If this sounds harsh to you, believe me it’s a much better fate than the drones that don’t mate in a given year. A drone that has not done its duty and thus died gloriously will stick around in the hive until fall. By then their time is up! Since they don’t serve a purpose to the hive as far as foraging or guarding, they have no reason to be around through the colder months where supplies are short and reserved for those (workers) who can pull their weight around. Workers can be seen literally dragging drones out from the hive to die. Even if they put up a fight, it’s pointless. By that time of year they’re likely outnumbered 100:1. They will starve and/or freeze to death outside of the warm hive before long.
Given all this, it can seem confusing why drones are so important or why a hive would even want a bunch of drones. The truth is, while they don’t do much outside of their one job, the more the merrier! Hives that have more drones mean that they have better genetics simply being that there is a higher probability that the drones that mate will be the strongest of the sample size. Simply put, more drones equals more likelihood of getting the best genes that hive has to offer. And if that’s not cool enough, here’s some other interesting drone facts!
Drones have much larger eyes than worker bees because they need better vision to see unmated queens when flying. They’re a lot harder to spot than a flower!
They’re much fuzzier than worker bees. While humans have around 100,000 hairs on our heads, drones have close to 3 million hairs on their bodies!
They visit other hives frequently. In fact, studies have found that the majority of drones in a hive on a given day are actually drones from other hives. It is believed they are stopping to grab a snack on their travels as they cannot forage from flowers. Talk about freeloaders!
They have an incredible sense of smell. Since they need to be able to smell queen pheromones, their sense of smell can locate queens up to 800 meters away!
All this to say, no matter if you’re seeing a drone or a worker bee, honeybees are extraordinary creatures. They all have unique abilities that allow the entire unit of a hive to function properly and without one or the other the hive would not survive. I often reflect on how this translates to our own human lives and how I can be more inclusive of EVERYONE as we all function better when working together! And also as a nice reminder to pull my weight when winter comes around….You don’t want to be left out in the cold.