Drone Bee:
The life of the Male Honey Bee - (Apis mellifera)

Updated: 17th February 2021

Drones are fertile male honey bees, and they are vital for the survival of honey bee colonies.  Their primary role is to mate with a receptive queen honey bee, in order to ensure future generations of honey bees, and indeed, expansion and creation of new colonies.

I've heard it said that drones don't do much because (say some):

  • Drones do little around the hive or nest - they don't clean or build honey combs, for example.
  • They help themselves to nectar stores.
  • They don’t collect food for the colony.
  • It is sometimes said that drones spend their time drinking nectar, mating, and lazing around on flowers.
    In fact, one scientific paper by Kova et al remarks: 

    "Honeybee drones are often called “lazy Willi” (Bonsels, 1912) and are often assumed to merely function as “flying sperm”, necessary to inseminate virgin queens".

    The scientist goes on to say,

    "This view, however, is not correct."
    (2).

The fact is:

Drones perform precisely the role that nature gave them, and as such, they are a vital part of the honey bee colony.

In addition, understanding of the broader role of the drone within the bee colony is increasing with further scientific research.


Below, you can read about the importance of honey bee drones.

Apis mellifera - drone honey bee, showing large eyes.A drone honey bee

About The Drone Bee 

10 Fast Facts About Honey Bee Drones

  • They may live for just a few weeks or up to 4 months.
  • They mate with the honey bee queen in the air - but only 10 to 20 drones get the opportunity!
  • They die straight after mating!  
  • They cannot sting.
  • Adult drones depend on nurse worker honey bees to feed them.
  • At the end of the summer, or when the going gets tough, they’re the first to be kicked out of the colony, so as not to drain resources.
  • Drones are fatherless.....yet they have a grandfather!
  • It takes 24 days for the drone to develop from being an egg to a fully grown adult bee.
  • The average lifespan of a drone is about 55 days, although there is a report suggesting they can live up to 90 days (3).
  • Drones are essential to the health and survival of future honey bee colonies.

How Large And Strong Are Drone Bees?

  • Drones can vary widely in size, but they are larger than workers, and smaller than queen honey bees although they are stockier in build.  The cells they develop from are slightly larger than worker cells.
  • These are a not only the colony’s brawniest bees.  They have huge eyes in comparison with queen and worker honey bees, which assist drones in spying young queens out on nuptial fights.
  • Drones also have massive flight muscles for chasing after the queens at speeds up to 35 kilometers an hour (about 22 miles per hour).  
A honey bee queen, a drone and a worker honey bee.  The queen has a longer body, the drone has large eyes and a stockier build, the worker is the smallest.Relative sizes of honey bee colony members, from left to right: queen, drone, worker. Note the large eyes of the drone.


Role Of Drones In the Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera) colony

  • Drones ensure the continuation of honey bees as a species, by mating with queens.
  • Drones can pass on important behavioural traits to new generations of honey bees, (such as hygenic behaviours) through their genes (1).
  • Drones help to regulate the temperature in the hive or nest, and this is especially important for the development of young bees and larvae.   Honey bee larvae and pupae are extremely stenothermic, which means they strongly depend on accurate regulation of brood nest temperature for proper development (33–36°C) (2).
  • Although each colony has far fewer drones than workers, they nevertheless pull their weight with regard to heat generation. 

    Research indicates that drones can produce one and a half times as much heat as a worker bee, and that even those drones not directly next to the brood, are never the less assisting with heat regulation inside the nest (4).

Fatherless Drones

WACKY FACT ABOUT DRONES:

A honey bee drone has no father, but he does have a grandfather!


Drones are 'haploid', having been reared from an unfertilized egg.  As a result, a drone has only half the chromosomes of a worker bee or queen bee  - the drone has 16 chromosomes, workers and queens have 32.

(That honey bee drones are haploid was first discovered in 1845 by a Polish apiarist, named Jan Dzierżon - often described as the 
"father of modern apiculture" - see History Of Beekeeping).

Being haploid means that drones can have a grandfather and grandsons, but a drone cannot have sons!


To explain further:

Drones come from unfertilized eggs (they are 'haploid'), meaning that no male (drone) was needed in order for the queen to produce more males - in other words, they are formed without a male 'parent'.  (In fact, at various times, female worker bees can and do also lay eggs create drones although this activity is usually suppressed by the queen or policed by other colony members, despite the fact that they do not mate with males - they are referred to as 'drone laying workers'). 

But what about the queens - the mother of all the drones?

In order for a queen to produce new queens, eggs must be fertilized, for which drone bees are necessary.  This means that the queen (the "mother" of the drone), has a "father" - obviously a drone.  This means that any drones produced by the queen, actually have a "grandfather" (i.e. the "father" of the queen) - more specifically, a "maternal grandfather" (the father of the queen).

Put yet another way and more succinctly:

The queen who laid the drone eggs, is the offspring of an egg fertilized by a drone (male).  Drones themselves, however, are the offspring of eggs that have not been fertilized by a male, and they are therefore, fatherless.

This scenario, whereby offspring are reared from unfertilized eggs,  is referred to by biologists as ‘parthenogenesis’.

Drone Mating Behaviour

Each honey bee colony will produce several hundred drones (in contrast with the thousands of workers).


On warm and sunny afternoons during the mating season, sexually mature drones, fly out of the nest (or hive) and congregate with other drones high in the air, to form a cloud of bees. There may be as many as 11000 drones from up to 240 different colonies (5).

These clouds of drones can measure between 30 and 200m in diameter,  and be located 10–40 m above ground (6).

About one hour after the peak of drones’ departure from the hives, virgin queen will also leave her hive for her nuptial flight, and join the drone congregation (7)

As soon as a virgin queen enters the congregation of drones, groups of drones are attracted to her, first by olfactory cues (pheromones), and at shorter range by visual cues. Drones follow the virgin queen in a comet-like swarm each competing to approach and mate with the queen (8)

Usually, a queen mates within 15–30 minutes, and with just 10–20 of the thousands of drones, and each drone that mates with the queen will die after mating (9).  This happens because the drone’s reproductive organs are torn away from its body, whilst the queen flies off, with the drones genitalia attached to her.

How Long Do Drone Bees Live?

Drones may live for just a few short weeks with drones that mate with queens having shorter lives since they die after mating.  However, it is also possible they may live up to 90 days(3).

Front view of a drone honey bee


They are expelled from their colonies by the end of summer, but in any case, by the end of autumn, there will be few or no drone bees around.  Learn more about the honey bee life cycle.

Do Honey Bee Drones Sting?

Unlike workers, the drone cannot sting.

References:

(1) Advances In Insect Physiology, Volume 39 pg 89-91 - Elsevier Academic Press

(2) Stabentheiner A, Kovac H, Brodschneider R (2010) Honeybee Colony Thermoregulation – Regulatory Mechanisms and Contribution of Individuals in Dependence on Age, Location and Thermal Stress. PLoS ONE5(1): e8967. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0008967

(3) Fukuda H, Ohtani T. Survival and lifespan of drone honeybees. Res. Popul. Ecol. 1977;19:51–68.

(4) Kovac H, Stabentheiner A, Brodschneider R. Contribution of honeybee drones of different age to colonial thermoregulation. Apidologie. 2009;40(1):82-95. doi:10.1051/apido/2008069.

(5) See: 
Free JB. Pheromones of social bees. London: Chapman and Hall; 1987

Baudry E, Solignac M, Garnery L, Gries M, Cornuet J, Koeniger N. Relatedness among honeybees (Apis mellifera) of a drone congregation. Proc R Soc Lond B. 1998; 265: 2009–2014.

Koeniger N, Koeniger G, Gries M, Tingek S. Drone competition at drone congregation areas in four Apis species. Apidologie. 2005; 36: 211–221.

(6) See:
Ruttner F, Ruttner H. Untersuchungen über die Flugaktivität und das Paarungsverhalten der Drohnen III. Flugweite und Flugrichtung der Drohnen. Z Bienenforsch. 1966; 8: 332–354.

Loper GM, Wolf WW, Taylor OR. Detection and monitoring of honeybee drone congregation areas by radar. Apidologie. 1987; 18: 163–172.

Loper GM, Wolf WW, Taylor OR. Honey-bee drone flyways and congregation areas: radar observations. J Kansas Entomol Soc. 1992; 65: 223–230.

Koeniger N, Koeniger G. Mating behavior in honey bees (Genus Apis). TARE. 2004; 7: 13–28.

(7) See:
Jean-Prost P. Observation sur le vol nuptial des reines d’abeilles. Acad Sci. 1957; 245: 2107–2110.


Koeniger N, Koeniger G. Mating behavior in honey bees (Genus Apis). TARE. 2004; 7: 13–28.

Ruttner F, Ruttner H. Untersuchungen über die Flugaktivität und das Paarungsverhalten der Drohnen. II. Beobachtungen an Drohnensammelplätzen. Z Bienenforsch. 1965; 8: 1–9.

(8) Gries M, Koeniger N. Straight forward to the queen: pursuing honeybee drones (Apis mellifera L.) adjust their body axis to the direction of the queen. J Comp Physiol A. 1996; 179: 539–544.

(9) See:
Baudry E, Solignac M, Garnery L, Gries M, Cornuet J, Koeniger N. Relatedness among honeybees (Apis mellifera) of a drone congregation. Proc R Soc Lond B. 1998; 265: 2009–2014.

Palmer KA, Oldroyd BP. Evolution of multiple mating in the genus Apis. Apidologie. 2000; 31: 235–248.

  
Schlüns H, Moritz RFA, Kryger P. Multiple nuptial flights and the evolution of extreme polyandry in honeybee queens (Apis mellifera L.). Anim Behav. 2005; 70: 125–131.








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