Honeybee's Indolent Dawdling Deliverer: Drone

A male honeybee is called a drone. Let me just drone on about this for a while.

This is an insect, not to be confused with the high-tech gadgets used to spy on you in recent times.

Honeybee drones are good for only one thing: to pass their mother's genes on to future generations. This is no exaggeration. That is literally their only beneficial function. Other than that, all they do is sit around and drink beer, smoke cigars and watch sports.

You see, drones are only raised during the mating season. That's when drones are actually needed. Virgin honeybee queens must be fertilized or they are of no use to current or future generations. Mating season is spring and sometimes summer, but not fall or winter.

Depending on your climate, much of the year there are no drones. This makes a lot of sense from the perspective of saving food and energy for the honeybee colony. If you don't need drones around, you don't have them. You don't use energy and protein to create them. And, you don't need to feed them. It's a smart plan.

The destiny of a honeybee drone is to die. Yes, that's true of all living things, but in the case of the drone, it's particularly noticeable. There are only two paths toward death for him. The happy path allows him to give a gift to future generations, but it's a shorter path. The sad path has him living a longer, but essentially useless life. Life expectancy is about 90 days1, but can be as long as four months2. Let's explore this in some detail.

A drone is a honeybee raised from an unfertilized egg. Therefore, he carries only his mother's genes. He has no father.

The egg is laid in a comb cell that is slightly larger than the typical worker cell because his body will be larger than a worker. The egg will hatch on the third day. He will then be fed royal jelly during days four, five and six, just like a worker or a queen. On day seven, his diet will change to honey and bee bread (pollen). This diet continues until his days as a larva come to an end on day eleven. On that day, his cell is capped and he spins a cocoon where he will transform into a pupa and finally a fully grown drone.

He will chew his way out of the Abundant Capped Dronecapped cell to emerge as an adolescent on the 24th day. He will then spend about two weeks maturing before he is a fully functional adult ready for mating, his true purpose in life.

As an adult, every afternoon he will fly to a Drone Congregation Area (DCA). There, he will literally hang out with his fellow drones between 40 and 160 feet in the air awaiting virgin queens. If he is lucky enough to deliver his gift to a queen while in flight, then he is thanked by having his phallus ripped from his body and he dies. On the other hand, if he spends his whole life waiting for a queen, but never wins her affection, then his sisters summarily kick him out of the house (in fall) leaving him alone to die of exposure. Only one in a thousand gets to pass on his genes, but all the many thousands are needed to ensure a queen's mating flight can be as short as possible. There are dangers out there, like hungry birds, and queens are precious.

Drones are shorter, thicker and bulkier than a queen, but noticeably bigger than a worker. Most new beekeepers will mistake a drone for a queen until they learn to look for the big eyes on the drone which can see in all directions. His huge compound eyes, with 25,000 facets, cover most of his head. This makes him easily distinguishable from the workers and queen. His wings cover the entire length of his abdomen and his buzzing is much different pitch than that of a worker. His large eyes and wings increase his chances of finding his quest in the DCA. He has no sting, no means of gathering honey or pollen, no wax secreting glands, no way of doing any colony supporting work and is not even capable of supporting himself; he counts on the workers to feed him.3

Drones at the entranceDrones freely drift from hive to hive without challenge at the entrance. This ensures gene diversity. Clearly, he should not be mating with his sister. So, by drifting, he increases his chances of encountering virgin queens from other geographically spread out colonies.

Drones at hive entrance.  They have much bigger eyes than the workers.

The down side to drifting is that drones can cause the spread of disease and parasites. In particular, the varroa destructor mite likes to hitch a ride on drones from hive to hive and the spores that cause foul brood are easily transmitted this way.

Alas, our necessary, but potentially destructive honeybee drone is the butt of many jokes. And I cannot think of a reason why this is not a deserved condition. It makes perfect sense to me that the ladies would kick out these drains on the colony at their earliest opportunity. I can almost hear the conversation now:

He says: “But it's cold out there, especially at night! How can you be so cruel?”

And she replies: “Buddy, when we need another one of you, we'll make one!”

Then you hear the boot hit his butt and the door slammed behind him.

3First Lessons in Beekeeping, by C.P.Dadant, 1951, pg23

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