Beekeepers often joke that male bees, or drones, are lazy because they don’t help out with any of the housework in the hive. They aim toward a singular goal in life: to mate with a queen. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that male honey bees are endowed with some of the largest genitalia, in proportion to body size, in the animal kingdom.
Depending on your climate, drones may be raised year-round, but they are most numerous in spring, during mating season. Drones reach sexual maturity about a week after emergence, and each afternoon in the spring they leave their hive in search of virgin queens from neighboring colonies. They fly to aerial sites called congregation zones, where they circle in wait for a passing queen.
It is not understood how or why they choose these mysterious mating locations, but a collection of drones from nearby colonies gathers at the same zones year after year. Should a queen appear, the drones will race toward her, competing against one another for the opportunity to mate.
When they are not attempting to mate with a queen, drones appear to do little else. They are often imagined to be lounging in the honey stores, begging their sisters for food. This unflattering picture has created a bias among beekeepers concerned about the economics of honey production in their apiaries. They believe the drones consume honey that might otherwise be harvested and give little in return.
But the representation of drones as useless layabouts is neither an accurate nor a fair portrayal of their role in the hive. Drones are known to boost colony morale, a catchall phrase that describes a number of positive influences they have within a colony, including increased honey production and healthier and more active worker bees.
They also contribute to temperature control in the hive. With their large body mass, drones have actually been shown to produce 1.5 times more heat than worker bees!
Drones also have a curious habit of spending time in colonies that are not their own. Worker bees are generally not permitted inside other colonies and will be attacked by guard bees if they try, but drones seem to be an exception. No one understands why this is, but it indicates that drones may play a more significant role in the colony than was once believed.
Novice observers sometimes confuse drones for queens because of their size. But when examined carefully, drones are easily recognized by their square butts, large powerful wings, and enormous eyes. These attributes increase their chances of mating with a queen — an act that is performed while in flight!
The successful drone meets an unfortunate fate, however: upon copulation, his penis explodes and detaches from his body, a fatal injury that ends his life. Though that may sound like an ignominious death, it beats the alternative. In late summer, workers eject all remaining drones from the hive, leaving them to die of exposure. Despite their merits, the colony cannot afford to feed and care for them when mating is not in season.
More from Queenspotting:
More from Hilary Kearney:
- Keeping Backyard Bees Podcast: Episode 30: Swarm Essentials
- MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair appearances
- Beekeeping Like a Girl: A Blog by Girl Next Door Honey
Excerpted from Queenspotting by © Hilary Kearney. Photography by © Hilary Kearney, © Tosca Radigonda © imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo, © Frank Greenaway/Getty Images. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.