drone bee

Drone Bees - A Complete Guide

Male bees of a colony are generally referred to as drones. These male bees may seem of little value to the colony. They can’t sting, lay eggs, collect pollen or make honey, so what do they do?

They are actually quite an important component for a colony to grow and remain healthy. Let’s take a closer look.

What Do Drone Bees Look Like?

Drone bees differ in appearance, from species to species. They usually look very similar to the other bees in the colony, the workers. However, there are a few subtle differences.

There are two main ways to identify a drone bee: by their eyes and their size. A drone’s eyes tend to be much bigger compared to those of a female worker bee. They are larger because they need to have good vision in order to spot queens, ready for mating.

In some species, the drones will be visibly larger, compared to the workers. In species like the honeybees, the drones will look more stout than the females. Despite their voluminous size, they’re still able to fly alongside a queen in order to mate.

One significant thing worker bees have that drones don’t have is a stinger. Drones can’t sting, so you don’t need to fear them as much.

The stinger on a female bee isn’t only there to give us a painful pinch. The stingers are actually used as egg-laying tools, which of course, a drone doesn’t need.

Drones Have Half the Chromosomes of Females

Drones are the product of unfertilized eggs. That means, they only have half the chromosomes of the female workers, 16 compared to 32. They only have genes from their mother (the queen) and their grandfather, since the queen came from a fertilized egg.

Or that’s what we think. You see, it’s been proven that worker bees can and do sometimes lay unfertilized eggs. This means that a drone can have a mother other than the queen.

The drone egg usually takes three days to hatch. He will then remain in the larval stage for about six days. The first two days he’ll receive a power food called royal jelly, after that he’ll eat pollen and honey.

After the larval stage comes to an end, the drone becomes a pupa. During this stage, he won’t feed and will remain here until he’s fully matured. The pupal stage usually lasts around seven days.

Drones are the last adults to emerge, even though their organisms aren’t much different from that of a worker bee. Queens typically become adults after 16 days, workers take 21, and drones take 24 days from egg to adult.

Where Do Drone Bees Live?

Answering this question is not exactly straightforward since the answer differs between species. In some species, the male will stick around for the majority of his life. Honeybee colonies usually consist of a few hundred drones.

In other bee species, however, the drones are mostly solitary, meaning they live on their own. Bumblebee drones leave their nest as soon as they become adults.

bumble bees inside some wood
CC Image courtesy of allan_harris

Bumblebees live in much smaller colonies compared to honeybees, and that may be part of the reason. The bumblebee drone will leave the nest to avoid mating with relatives.

He will set out to find a queen to mate with. The drone frequently travels several miles before finding an area to settle in. He will often nest underneath, or even inside, large flowers. The male bumblebee has, in fact, quite the bachelor life.

bumblebee on flower
CC Image courtesy of mattx27

He spends his nights clinging to a flower, then, as morning shows its glorious face, he will slowly wake. Bumblebees can’t fly when the temperature drops, which is why you might notice one or more “sick” bumblebees in your yard.

They aren’t sick, though, they simply just need to warm up. Bumblebee drones warm up by drinking nectar or lying in the sun. They can also “shiver” their flight muscles, to heat them up to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature needed to fly. If you ever spot a drone in this situation, just leave him to warm up.

What Is The Drone Bee’s Role Within a Colony?

The drone’s main purpose in life is to fertilize a queen bee. Honeybee drones often hang around specific spots known as drone congregation areas. This is where the mating will take place.

The area is always away from the nest and usually takes place above ground level. There are some exceptions though, such as bumblebees, who will usually mate on the ground.

bumble bee ground nest

The drones will wait around until a queen enters the area. If she doesn’t enter the area, the drones likely won’t notice her and she won’t be fertilized.

Drones from multiple colonies gather at the congregation area, sometimes as many as 25,000 or more individuals.

When a queen enters the zone, the drones will head out. The drones won’t fight for her love, they will simply race each other. The few bees that fly the fastest will mate with the queen.

Only a few of the drones will actually get to mate with the queen. The other drones will either stick around that same spot, or they might go off and find a different congregation area. Some of the smaller, or slower males, might seek out a nest where they’ll hope to bump into a queen-to-be.

Importance of the Drones

Although drones mostly have just one task in life, that task is essential for a healthy colony. Without drones, the queens wouldn’t be fertilized. Unfertilized eggs only produce males, so that would mean the end of the colony.

Since the queen mates with males from various colonies, she’ll create a more genetically diverse family.

The genetic diversity prevents deadly diseases and infections from forming or spreading. The great diversity also promotes colony growth. A study has shown that genetic diversity actually helped to prevent chronic infections.

Drones Are More Than Just Flying Sperm

Within a honeybee colony, all bees start their life as tiny eggs. The eggs soon grow into larvae, which then molt into pupae. The temperature within the hive during the brooding stages is crucial.

The optimal temperature within the hive should be between 89.6 and 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Honeybees are known for the ability of thermoregulation, which everyone in the hive helps with.

Drones actually help to regulate the temperature quite a lot. It has even been shown that the younger the drone, the more he helps with the thermoregulation.

Because of their larger bodies, drones create more heat as they prepare to take flight. Studies showed that the drones’ endothermy increased when the temperature dropped. This helps the hive regulate its temperature for the developing youngsters.

Drones are also known to help cool the nest during hot summer days. All the bees will fan their wings, creating a form of air conditioning.

Bumblebee Drones

The bumblebee queen will usually lay the (unfertilized) male eggs when the nest’s storage is close to full. When the drone is fully grown, he is ready to take on his only job: mating.

bumblebee nest

When bumblebee drones emerge as adults within a nest, it usually means the end of the generation. The male bumblebees will drink up the stored honey and nectar without replacing it. Once they’re full and ready, they will leave and never return.

Bumblebees are a little bit different when it comes to mating, compared to honeybees. The adult drone will quickly leave the nest, as we concluded above. Once he has left, he will find an area where queens are likely to fly by.

In this area, he will lay out a pheromone on several spots. The pheromone is a special scent that will attract queens flying nearby.

The drone will usually mark these spots in the mornings or after rain. Where they place their pheromones depends on the species. Researchers have found that the Bombus lapidarius, lucorum, and terrestris will choose high spots.

Other bumblebee species, such as Bombus sylvestris and hortorum, choose spots closer to the ground.

bumble bee nest entrance hole
Bumblebee nest entrance

Honeybees usually mate while flying, bumblebees like to take it a little slower. When bumblebees mate, it can take anywhere from 10 to 80 minutes.

The male bumblebee actually only needs about two minutes to ejaculate his sperm. One might wonder why they need all that extra time. That is because, after mating, the male will inject a sticky substance into the queen.

The substance will harden and act as a seal for about three days. During those three days, no other male can mate with the queen. Drones do this in order to make sure their genes are the ones making it.

Sadly though, it has been shown that only one in seven males achieve mating.

How Long Do Drone Bees Live?

Male drones will only live for three to four months, however, their lives are full of danger. Drones usually live much longer than their female co-workers.

Worker bees are extremely busy, they work constantly, gathering resources for the hive. This is why they don’t live as long.

Drone bees don’t have the same responsibilities, but that is also often the reason why they lose their life.

The same way that worker or queen bees die after stinging, drones die after mating. When mating, the drone will mount the queen and insert his endophallus.

After fertilizing the queen, the drone pulls away. As he does so, his endophallus is ripped out of his body and remains attached to the queen. The next male to come along and mate will then first have to remove it before getting busy.

When the drone loses his endophallus, he will die soon after. He dies because he also loses a substantial part of his abdomen.

Rejected from the Colony

The few honeybee drones who don’t mate, and are therefore still alive, might have a tough time during late summer and fall. As winter approaches fast, worker bees are working even harder to forage for the last of the nectar, and creating the last remnants of honey.

beehives in winter

They do this to prepare for the long cold months. This also means there is no room for drones. Drones don’t add much value to the nest other than mating, and keeping them around means extra mouths to feed.

What do the worker bees do? They simply eject the drones from the colony. In late fall, the workers will not allow any drones to enter the nest. With nowhere to go, the drones will eventually starve, or freeze, to death.

What Do Drone Bees Eat?

Honeybee drones like to feed on the resources found within the hive. Their larger bodies require more energy, therefore, they tend to eat more.

During the first three days as an adult, the drone is unable to feed himself. The worker bees will continue to feed him.

On the fourth day, the drone is ready to feed himself. The drones will usually feed themselves with honeycomb or bee-bread, which is created within the hive by the workers.

bee and honeycomb

The honeybee drone’s proboscis is very short, therefore, it’s rare for them to feed on plants while outside of the hive. When they do, they tend to choose plants with nectar, as they don’t feed on pollen.

Summary

Even though the drone bee’s job within the hive might seem small—they are crucial members of the colony and without them, the species wouldn’t survive.

They bring genetic diversity to colonies, and some — for example, honeybees — help to regulate the temperature within the nest. Despite their important role, however, they become a burden on the colony later in the season.

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