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The drone bee is perhaps the only bee that is least celebrated in the beekeeping world. The queen and worker bees seem to thrive at the expense of these silent heroes. But truth be told, the drone bee also has an important role to play and this should not be overlooked. The life of the drone bee from birth to death is a fascinating one. These male bees have to be on the lookout for Drone Congregation Areas, an important part of their life. This is where they can engage in mating flights along with hundreds to thousands of other drones, in which the successful males die after mating with a queen bee.
The Behavior of the Drone Bee
The drone bee is easily distinguishable from birth. They take a completely different path from the start, unlike the queen or worker bees. They are produced during spring and all through the summer months. Their cells tend to be bigger and broader to give them enough room to develop and attain their full size. The drone cell is unfertilized and thus they have 16 chromosomes in its genes, unlike the 32 chromosomes in queen and worker bee.
A drone cell is larger in diameter and is also longer. The drone brood will usually protrude from the surface of combs, giving a look that is similar to the shape of a bullet. The brood will take 24 days to mature, unlike worker bees that emerge after 21 days. This is one of the reasons the varroa mites have a preference towards drone cells. It gives their larva sufficient time to devour and grow inside capped drone cells.
Upon maturity, a young drone bee is fed and cared for by the worker bees. They are sometimes regarded as beggar bees since they wait for worker bees with their mouths open and ready to be fed through a process referred to as trophallaxis. Nonetheless, older drones tend to self-serve in accessing and feeding on nectar stores.
The drone bees wait for hot sunny afternoons when they can engage in mating flights. The mating flights take less than 5 seconds and occur 10 to 40 meters off the ground, with the main participants comprising more than 11,000 drone bees from more than 240 honeybee colonies. The drone bee will mate with virgin queens from other colonies.
The queen bee is pursued by thousands of drone bees during mating flights, and only between 10 to 12 drones will successfully mate with her. The successful one will straddle the queen using his thorax in mid-air, grab her with his legs, and use its endophallus to insert semen into the sting chamber.
Once the drone bee ejaculates, the endophallus breaks off and completely dismembers the drone’s abdomen. Consequently, the drone bee dies right then. The unsuccessful drone bees fly back to the hive, even though they are not wanted at this point. During periods of dearth, drone bees are the first victims of starvation since they are starved by workers and kicked out of the hive.
Physical Attributes of the Drone Bee
The drone bee exhibits easily visible physical attributes that include:
Since the main role of the drone bee is to mate with the queen bee, they have an endophallus or appendage hidden inside them that deposits semen into the female’s sting chamber. They do not have a stinger as a worker or queen bee.
A stinger is not necessary for drone bees given the fact that they do not defend the honeybee colony from invaders. They are therefore harmless to the beekeeper as they lack a stinger.
Lack of Proboscis and Nectar Pikes
Worker bees have proboscis used for sucking nectar and pikes on hind legs that help carry pollen. This is however not the case with drone bees. The drones do not need any of these given their main work of mating.
The drone will venture outside the hive for only one reason – to mate with queen bees from other hives. They neither do scouting work nor foraging roles like worker bees. Their lack of a honey stomach and pollen baskets renders drone bees non-useful in terms of feeding the colony.
Bigger in size
The drone bee is much bigger than the worker bee but smaller than the queen bee. On average, a drone is 22.7 mm in size when compared to a worker bee which is 11 to 15 mm in size.
When compared to a queen bee, the drone is a little smaller in size. They are however stocky in build, unlike the queen who is longer.
Drone bees have round heads that make their eyes appear round and close to each other. Their eyes are huge when compared to those of the worker and queen bee. This is needed since it helps to easily track virgin female queen bees during mating flights.
The large drone eyes are its signature feature, making it easier for the beekeeper to differentiate it from other bees during a hive inspection. This is important since the presence of many drone bees in a hive indicates an inevitable swarm on its way.
Large Wings with Strong Flight Muscles
Drone bees have massive flight muscles that come in handy when pursuing females during mating flights. They need to fly at speeds of up to 35 kilometers per hour and from this, only about 10 to 12 males will manage to catch up and mate with the queen bee.
The drone bee’s wings are also longer and larger, completely covering its abdomen. The stomach itself is similar to a box in shape and the abdomen is thick.
Drone bees are primarily the fertile male honeybees responsible for siring future queens. They are therefore much needed by the honeybee colonies. Their main role is to propagate their 16 chromosomes with help of the receptive queen bee. This will mean the future generation of honeybees is guaranteed for colony expansion and the creation of bees. They also sometimes engage in other hive roles such as temperature regulation during hot and cold seasons.