Drone Honey Bee

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The Boys’ Club

When a beekeeper looks inside a hive it is a very rare occurrence to find drone honeybees inside of the brood nest.  Either the worker bees do not tolerate drones near the brood, or the drones themselves have little desire to visit the center of the colony.  More often than not, drones can be found on the outskirts of the brood, usually on a frame or two at the very edge of the colony, hanging out together with lots of other drones – the classic boys’ club of sorts.

Many things about the drones are different from the worker bees.  Besides the obvious differences of sex, honey production (drones do not produce honey), stinging (drones do not sting), and their large body sizes and ridiculously large eyes, drones mature and live at their own, more leisurely pace.

Whereas worker bees emerge from their brood cells in 21 days, drones take an unhurried 24 days.  When worker bees emerge they “hit the ground running”; before long they are attending to the many tasks inside the hive.  Drones, on the other hand, mature slowly.  They are not capable of mating until they are at least 6 days old.  During this time, they appear to have not much to do other than to eat and relax.

Even eating itself is relaxing, because young drones do not even feed themselves!  When drones are born they quickly learn how to solicit workers for food – especially nurse bees, which will feed them a mixture of honey, pollen and brood food.  Then, after feeding, it’s back to another stress free day in their own little man cave . . .

Production of Drone Honeybees

Over the course of her mating flights, each queen bee will mate with up to 15 drone bees.  Most queen producers aim to create a scenario where at least 20 drone honeybees, and ideally many, many more, are readily available for each virgin queen bee when she heads out on her mating flights.  When producing queen bees for sale in large quantities, it quickly becomes obvious that the queen producer is also in the business of rearing drone honeybees.

At the height of the swarming season, especially when nectar is abundant, nearly all bee colonies instinctually produce large amounts of drones. Bee colonies will go out of their way to produce drone comb for the queens to lay drone eggs into, ensuring a steady output of drone honeybees. During these times of abundant drones, queen producers have it easy, with plenty of drones available to get the job done!

However, what about when drones are not abundant? It doesn’t always rain here in Southern California. Our summers are dry. Under these conditions, bees are not always inclined to produce drones on their own. When this happens, the queen producer must intervene, and supplement queen mating with additional drone stock. Much like our local ski areas in Southern California that often need to make up for a shortage of natural snow by blanketing their resorts with “snow making machines”, Wildflower Meadows has a similar ability to supplement the natural supply of drones by blanketing our mating areas with “drone rearing machines.”

Our drone production yards, like the one pictured above, are maintained in strategically placed locations surrounding the various queen mating yards. These drone production colonies, stocked with strong and excellent stock, are fed weekly throughout the entire season, both with syrup and pollen supplement – regardless of weather or environmental conditions. These colonies never know anything but abundance, and probably have no idea that they are in the midst of a drought. Life for them is good! The queens inside these colonies are confined to the lower box, along with easily accessible frames of drone comb and more than enough food. With this irresistible enticement, they effortlessly produce massive amounts of drones. The result? An entire apiary full of “drone rearing machines” and thousands of drones taking to the sky every day.

Drone Comb

Because drones are some of the least appreciated honeybees among beekeepers, it follows that the frames of honeycomb that are set up to breed them would be equally under-appreciated.  A colony of bees will build honeycomb cells in two sizes, regular-size or drone-size.  Most natural honeycomb, and just about all “foundation” for sale by beekeeping supply companies is regular-sized, meaning that the brood that is raised will become worker bees.  After all, nearly all beekeepers prefer worker bees that make honey over so-called “worthless” drone bees that mainly consume honey.

Regardless of the efforts of the beekeeper, however, all beehives have a strong instinct to raise a certain percentage of drone honeybees, especially during the swarm season in the spring.  To rear new drones, the hive requires that some of the cells in the honeycomb be of the larger drone-sized variety.

Since it creates all of its own comb, a feral or top bar hive has no problem creating some drone-sized comb of it own, and adding it to the existing worker-sized comb that it already has.  A managed Langstroth beehive, however, often does not have an easy way to build drone-sized cells.  In this type of hive, the beekeeper provides all of the frames of honeycomb, which are nearly universally worker-sized.  As a result, the bees themselves have to improvise where and how they can construct drone comb given the limited space to do so.  Often the bees construct some makeshift drone comb between the boxes.  Or, if some old honeycomb is damaged or has a hole in it, the bees eagerly replace the damaged area with drone-sized comb.

Once in a while, a beekeeper runs into an old frame, which as a result of being heavily damaged and re-repaired by the bees, consists nearly entirely of this rebuilt drone comb.  These types of frames, one of which is pictured above, show up often in commercial beekeeping operations where frames are apt to be damaged by regular handling.  As a rule, commercial beekeepers dislike these frames and often discard and replace them as soon as they are discovered.

On the other hand, queen rearing outfits, such as Wildflower Meadows, love drone comb!  The more drone honeycomb, the more drones available, and the better the mating chances and better quality of the resulting queens.  At Wildflower Meadows, we like to make sure that our best colonies have at least two frames of drone comb to produce the maximum quantity of drones.  The frame pictured above, worthless to many beekeepers, is “drone gold” to us!

 

Drone Honeybees With White Eyes

Here is something you don’t see too often: otherwise healthy drone honeybees that have white eyes!  Recently we ran into a colony that was full of white-eyed drones.  One of our staff beekeepers, caught off guard, declared that he had discovered “zombie drones!”  Actually, no, it does happen from time to time that healthy drone bees can be seen with the mutation of white eyes.

Why is it that only drones show the white-eyed mutation, but not the workers bees?  The answer lies in how recessive genes work.

Among bees in a hive, drone bees are more apt to express mutations from recessive genes than other bees.  A drone bee is unique and different from the two types of female bees (workers and queen bees) in that it is developed from an unfertilized egg.  As a result, a drone bee has only one set of chromosomes – effectively only one parent.  Therefore, with only one set of chromosomes, recessive genes can be expressed more readily without being overridden by a corresponding dominant gene.

These white-eyed drones appear perfectly normal; they move around the hive like other bees, eat honey, relax, and live an apparently normal drone bees’ life.  Don’t be fooled, however.  Their life is not normal.  For them, there will never be any mating; no flights, no lying to drone congregation areas, nor looking for queens.  These drones are more or less stuck inside the hive; because, due to their white eyes, they are blind.

 

Drone Bee

Meet Mr. Drone

Imagine a honeybee that doesn’t collect nectar, doesn’t produce beeswax, doesn’t take care of the larva, doesn’t nurse the young bees, doesn’t protect the colony, and can’t even sting.  The drone honeybee’s sole purpose in life is to mate with a queen.  Notice the enormous eyes.  They come in handy for finding a suitable mate.

Interestingly, the drone honey bee never mates inside of a colony.  The drone leaves the colony for mating approximately six days after hatching. Drones normally fly in the afternoon, provided the weather is warm and sunny, with little or no wind.  When it is time to mate, a drone loads his huge body with honey, like a tanker, and heads out for flights of a mile or longer.  His destination: special areas called “drone congregation areas.”  Drone congregation areas are specific geographic locations where groups of drones wait for the arrival of virgin queen bees by detecting their pheromones.  A virgin queen will mate with ten to twenty drones, but the drone has only one mating event, which is both his first and last.  Shortly after mating with a queen, the drone dies.