Analyzing Honeycomb: Drone Cells/Comb

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Drones are the male bees whose role is dwarfed by that of the female worker bees. Nonetheless, they play an important role of sustaining the colony’s lifeline. An understanding of the drone bee’s survival and wellbeing is a fundamental when raising successful honeybee colonies. Being able to recognize drone comb is an important for both new and experienced beekeepers.

About the Drone Honeybee

Drone Honeybee

The drone bee is the male honeybee. Drones are born from unfertilized eggs and have one of the shortest life spans when compared to the other types of honeybees. They are also the simplest to comprehend since their role is quite straightforward, that is, mate with the queen bee during what is referred to a “mating flight”.

The worker bees are bestowed with the responsibility of caring for the drone bees. Not all of the few drone bees born during summer and spring end up mating with the queen. This special role is reserved only for a select few drones.

The drone lacks a stinger and is harmless. They appear to be the only honeybees that have an easier time within the colony. This does not imply, by no means, the task of mating is any easier; the penis of the drone bee tears out of the body during mating for the queen bee to store sperm. Ideally, this leads to the death of the drone bee. Any other drone bee that fails to mate with the queen bee is prohibited from accessing the hive food reserves by the workers. Ultimately, these drones are driven out of the hive and end up starving to death.

In terms of physical appearance, the drone bee is easy to identify. They have large eyes that make their work easier during the mating flights. The eyes are twice the size of those of workers and queen bee. The body size is also larger than worker bee but smaller than the queen bee. A stouter abdomen is also noticeable in drone bees.

A drone bee in a nut-shell:

  • It can never sting since, it does not have a stinger.
  • They do not collect nectar or pollen.
  • They do not care for the larvae.
  • Will never build or clean honeycombs.
  • Have the pleasure of visiting and feasting on honey reserves.
  • Will in some instances visit nectar sources, drink and lazy around in these areas.
  • Will be kicked out of the honeybee colony when times get tough at end of summer to avoid draining resources.
  • Does not have a father but has a grandfather.
  • Is formed from slightly larger cells than those of the workers.
  • Is characterized by well-build flight muscles that help chase the queen bee during the mating flight. They will fly at about 35KM an hour during these flights.
  • Will only eat and mate, then die.
  • The drone bee takes longer to grow and mature, 24 days in total. For worker bees they take 21 days to develop and the queen bee takes 16 days to develop. During its first ten days, the drone bee will be fed within an open cell. The cells will then be capped during the last 14 days of its brood life. Its capping is convex unlike worker and queen cell capping.

The Life Cycle of the Drone Honeybee

The drone bee, as explained earlier, is critical for the sustenance of the honeybee colony. These are fertile males that will mate with the queen and ensure the continuation of life for the colony. They are essential for the expansion and creation of future bees.

Drone bees emerge from unfertilized eggs and that is why they are regarded as haploid. Basically, to form a drone bee does not require male bee intervention. The hundreds of drone bees formed per season are formed with the absence of a male parent.

Interestingly, worker bees will lay eggs that will create drones in some instances. This is however rare, since the queen bee and other worker bees prevent it from happening. 

Mature drone bees will congregate with other drones during warm afternoons, forming a cloud comprising of more than 11,000 drones high in the sky. This will occur during the mating flight, and will be about 10 to 40m above ground as they await virgin queen bees. The queen bees join the frenzy an hour after departure of drone bees. She will join the cloud of drone, alluring to a number through her pheromones and visual cues. She will then be pursued by the drone bees, with about 10 to 20 of the thousand present, successfully mating with her.

Each of the drone bees that manage to mate with queen bee will die after the work is completed. Any of the drones that succeed in mating will have died within a few weeks of being born. Others might be lucky enough to live for about 90 days if it does not mate with a queen bee.

Roles of Drone Honeybee

The drone bee plays an important role in any colony. These include:

  1. Primarily guarantee the continuation of the honeybee species through mating. They pass their sperms into the queen bee that will lay eggs that hatch and become future generation bees.
  2. Genetic effect on future bees. The drone bees pass their genes to future bees, which influence behavior such as hygiene, aggression, dormancy, and many others.
  3. One of the ways honeybees regulate interior temperatures is through clustering. This is particularly common during colder months such as winter. The young brood heavily relies on the adult bees since they are stenothermic. The collective clustering of worker and drone bees help keep temperatures within the required range. It is worth mentioning that drone bees produce 1-1/2 times more heat than worker bees due to their size. They are therefore crucial in heat generation.

What Does Drone Comb Look Like?

The drone comb is not everyone’s cup of tea. This can be attributed to the fact that the drone honeybee is the least appreciated. Nearly all beekeepers have a preference to worker bees since these perform the most work within the colony. The drone bee is viewed as lazy and least useful. This is a misconception that should be avoided. Each honeybee has a role to play, however small the task might appear.

It therefore follows that every honeybee colony will instinctively raise only a few drone bees at one time. It is particularly common for honeybee colonies to build drone combs during swarming seasons.  This is usually during spring. Consequently, the worker bees will create drone cells that are larger in size, unlike others.

For domesticated honeybees the task of building drone cells proves to be a challenge. This is unlike feral bees that can build these drone-size cells with so much ease. This is the case since the beekeeper has put in place standard sized frames that tend to be worker cell sized. What this means is that worker bees have to design the drone cells by utilizing available space which is limiting. You will therefore find the drone cells in most unlikely areas. For instance, drone cells can be found between boxes. You might also find drone cells in damaged honeycombs. Combs that also have holes in them can be utilized for making drone cells as well.

Damaged frames are also utilized by honeybees. The bees will repair the frames and build drone cells on it. You can therefore find an old one with plenty of drone cells on it. The main cause of the damage on these frames is often regular handling. The beekeeper might find these completely out of use save the bees.

Identifying Drone Cells

Drone Comb on Frame

How then do you identify drone cells? Well, drone cells can be described as follows:

  • Drone cells are easily identifiable given its larger relative to the size of worker bee cells. During the first 10 days the drone brood is kept in open cells and will be capped for the next 14 days using a convex-shaped capping.
  • You will find drone cells, most of time, on the edges of the brood chamber. This is a strategic location for drone cells since drone brood tend to do well in slightly lower temperatures. This is usually by one or two degrees unlike other brood. The worker bees comprehend this and thus the need to create these cells on the edges.
  • Capped brood cells are conspicuous. The dome-shaped capping is much larger and can be spotted easily. This is unlike worker cells that have a much smaller capping.
  • The number of drone cells will vary depending on the type of apiculture in question. For instance, domesticated honey bees will build fewer drone cells when compared to those in the wild. This is attributable to the fact that feral bees need to survive in a tougher environment. By creating more drone cells they are guaranteed of surviving in the wild. In terms of number, feral bees have approximately 30% drone cells. Contrastingly, domesticated honey bees will create approximately 10% of drone cells given the restrictions set by the beekeeper.
  • Burr combs with drone cells are common with domesticated honeybees. This is a widespread occurrence since honeybees instinctively build drone cells for survival. Therefore, the foundation frames provided by the beekeeper will result in these combs. The main intention of providing frames with foundation is to minimize the number of drone cells created in the hive. Foundationless frames thus encourage worker bees to build drone combs.
  • The drone and worker cells are either used for rearing brood or storage of food reserves. When not in use the worker bees clean them up after using them for nectar and pollen storage. The cells will then be ready for brood.
  • Unfertilized eggs are laid into drone cells whereas fertilized eggs are laid into worker cells.


Analyzing drone comb can be easy once you get the drill. For starters, it proves challenging to differentiate a drone cell from a queen cell. Fortunately, frequently handling these cells and familiarity with it proves to help over the long haul. In fact, a drone bee tends to be almost the same size with a queen and hence not easy decipher as well. The drone with its plump structure in addition to its large eyes is easy to notice. This is unlike a queen bee that has a long and slender body structure. The drones are treated by contempt by most beekeepers but this should never be the case.

At maximum, a healthy colony should have 15% of drone bees. Drone brood is essential for the survival of the bee colony and should not be undervalued. Drone brood is widely used in various industries such as pharmaceuticals and health and wellness industries. Some of the areas of its application include: treatment of liver diseases, treating fertility issues in men, liver disease treatment, osteoporosis, boosting immunity, boosting cell development, and boosting fetus health. It is also used as a healthy product in animals.


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  1. Being a complete beginner in the beekeeping world I learn more and more on how each and every part of the bees world is crucial and very important in keeping the colonies strong, healthy and the advantage to reproduce. I enjoyed the article and the information on the differences between each bee in a hive. I learned so much. Thank you for a great article.

    • Wonderfull artical. Came to know how the drone brood is usefull for leaver treatment.
      Would like to add a missed out information about drones that they are welcomed in any colony and are not attacked or driven out by guarding bees.

  2. Hello sorry I posted my views wrongly as a reply to Jacki Device’s comment

  3. Every foraging bee carries the queen substance pheromones of her colony and hence on return allowed back entry to her colony. Do the drones also carry it? If yes then how they are allowed entry in other colonies?

  4. What is the role of Drones in infections, mites carriers from colony to colony?

    • This would more be done by the worker bees and not the drones. Diseases are typically spread between colonies because of shared foraging – bees from different colonies visiting the same flowers.

      There are only a few drones in a colony at any given time, and their main purpose is to mate with the queen, not to go out and forage.

  5. Very useful article….Thank you for my continuing education….I am looking forward to the Spring breakout…..Curious though: Are all mating flights considered swarms?

  6. Any information about how inbreeding is avoided by bees . Do the drones of a colony mate with their sister vergin queen or they don’t?

  7. I have enjoyed The article. As a biginner, it was not easy for to differentiate between worker and drone cells. The way u have explained, the cells are now identifiable. Thanks so much