Beekeeping is an exercise in continuing education, experimentation, and acceptance.

Drone Honey Bees: What is their Role in a Bee Colony?




Close up photo of a drone (male) honey bee.

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Drones are male honey bees. When you see someone throw a bee into their mouth, it is most likely a drone because drones cannot sting you. In one of my daddy’s first hive inspections, he found and gave me a drone. I named him “Jerry.” After that, my sister called all of the drones Jerry. Now we refer to all drones as “Jerry” in our household.

What does a Drone Bee do?

The drone’s sole purpose is to mate with a virgin queen when she is on a mating flight. Drones do not mate with their own queen. Every day, they take two to four flights anywhere from half a mile to three miles away in search of a virgin queen. They do this to search for queens from other colonies for genetic diversity.

How are Drone Bees Made?

Drones are made out of unfertilized eggs. In order for a queen to lay an unfertilized egg, she needs a larger and deeper cell, or drone cells, to lay drone eggs. Because the cell is larger, when the queen lays, the egg does not come into contact with the sperm.

Drone brood looks very different from a worker bee cell. While the worker brood looks flat, drone brood is bumpy-looking. Most people say it looks like popcorn. I think it looks like mini yellow marshmallows. 

Why do Varroa Mites Prefer Drones?

Varroa mites tend to prefer drone brood to worker brood because they can raise more of themselves in a drone’s cell. They lay their eggs before a cell is capped. The pupal stage for a drone is 14 1/2 days, which is longer than a worker bee’s 12 days or a queen bee’s eight days. The longer duration is ideal for varroa mites, so they gravitate to drone cells.

Beekeepers can use this to their advantage. They sometimes add a frame of drone cells to a hive. Before the drones have a chance to hatch and release the varroa mites, you can remove the frame entirely to help reduce the overall population of the varroa mites.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between a Worker Bee and a Drone?

Drone honey bees look very different from all the other female worker bees. The drone’s body size is noticeably larger than a regular worker honey bee’s smaller size. Because of their large size, they are often mistaken as the queen bee. However, their tail end is rounded while the queen bee has a long, pointy abdomen. All female bees have pointy butts for their stingers. Drones also have large eyes for better vision. This helps them with spotting a young queen in her nuptial flight.

This is a photo of a drone, circled in red, surrounded by worker honey bees.
This drone bee is surrounded by worker bees. He has a rounded butt and large eyes.

What Happens to a Drone Bee After Mating?

During mating season, new queens go out to mate with male drones. When they meet up, they will mate while flying. When a drone mates with the queen, he will die shortly after. As the drone pulls out of the queen’s abdomen, his reproductive organs are pulled out, and he dies.

How Many Drones does a Queen Bee Mate with?

The queen mates in the first or second week of her life. She mates with honey bee drones from various colonies, and she needs more than one! A queen will mate with around twelve drone bees on her mating flight!

(Emma’s fact: Bees can fly up to fifteen miles per hour!)

What Happens to the Drones who don’t Mate with a Queen?

The drones that do not successfully mate with a young queen go back to the hive while they wait for their demise. They cannot feed themselves, so they are constantly begging the nurse bees for food. As winter approaches, the drones could potentially become a drain on a colony’s resources. Since they are not needed to mate during the winter, the female workers may stop feeding them, and they begin to kick them out of the hive.

If your bee colony is strong and healthy enough, it’s not uncommon for them to keep some drone bees into the winter. If the worker bees feel they have more than enough resources, then they will not kick out all of the drones. So in this case, don’t be surprised if you do see a few drones during the winter.

So are Drones Actually Pretty Useless?

People often make jokes about drones and how they are not important since they only eat the resources and a minimal number actually serve as mates for a queen. However, they do play a significant role in honey bee colonies.

The presence of drones can indicate how well a colony is doing. If a bee colony is strong and booming, they will be making drones. The percentage of drones in a strong colony will be about 10 to 15 percent.

If you have given your hive frames with foundation, then you will typically find the drone brood cells added on the bottom of the frame.

Can you find the drone brood cells at the bottom of the frame? The honey bees have added larger cells to the bottom of the frame.

Why Do I have so Many Drones in My Hive?

Do you feel like you have more drones than you should? Are you seeing an unusually large drone population? Once when I was doing a hive inspection with my dad, we just saw so many drones we couldn’t spot the queen. When we pulled up a frame, it was completely covered with the mini marshmallow drone cells. This is a sign of trouble!

The presence of drones can show if a colony is struggling. For example, if you find a large number of drones and drone brood long before early spring and the right time for the build-up in your area, it may mean your queen can no longer lay worker brood. This can happen if a queen has run out of sperm. A queen could also be laying a lot of drones if she has not been properly mated.

This is a video about a drone laying queen bee.

If your honey bee colony is queenless for an extended period of time, worker bees may begin to lay drone eggs. Then you have a laying worker, but no queen. You will see multiple eggs in the cells, and they will seem messy. I think this is nature’s way of trying to preserve itself. The bee colony senses they are in trouble, so by creating drones, they can hopefully preserve some of their genetic material if their drones are able to successfully mate with a virgin queen.

Emma’s Conclusion

Drone honey bees can seem like lazy house bees just begging for food between their fruitless flights looking for a queen. But I like the “Jerrys,” and it is fun to look for the larger eyes and rounded butts during hive inspections or even in our backyard. Since they cannot sting, they are safe to hold and handle. You can even throw them into your mouth! Just try not to swallow them! Ew. Drones are useful for mating with the queen to help keep the bees going as a species. And you can also learn how to use the drones to tell you how well your bee hive is doing. Have some fun with your Jerrys! 🙂

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