If you purchase an independently reviewed item through our site, we earn an affiliate commission. Read our affiliate disclosure.
The drone bees might be considered worthless in the honeybee colony but that is far from the truth. Rearing drone bees is equally important to raising the queen bee. In fact, the drone bee is the cornerstone of the honeybee’s existence and survival since they determine the genetic makeup of the colony. Additionally, the production of drones is based on seasons and can only happen when the colony is willing to produce drones. Therefore, the need to rear adequate healthy drones is imperative for successful apiculture given the fact that of the thousands of drones available during the mating flight, only 12 will mate with the queen on average.
An Overview of the Drone Bee
Drone bees are interesting given the fact that they are haploid in nature. By this, it means they do not have a father but rather they have a mother and grandfather. They take a longer time to mature when compared to the queen and worker bees. They are reared only when required and discarded when not required. The changes in their locality will affect drone-rearing cycles with an abundance of nectar and pollen being a trigger for the production of drone bees.
Drone bees may seem worthless in the honeybee colony but they play an important role. That can explain why about 17% of cells in a feral bee colony are drone cells. As a matter of fact, healthy honeybee colonies never lack a number of drone bees and drone cells at any given time.
The drone bee is capable of producing from 5 to 10 million sperms and this will be used within its 28 days of life. The maximum the drone can live is 55 days. Large colonies, in particular, require a sufficient number of healthy drones since the drone bees are required for the survival of the honeybee colony. These male bees might not mate with the colony’s queen but venture outside the colony for mating with queens from other colonies during their mating flights.
The drone bee will take 24 days to develop and will take between 6 to 16 days to be sexually mature. This is unlike female bees which take 16 days to develop and between 6 to 8 days to sexually mature. A sexually mature drone has a penis that can be likened to a folded balloon with some complex attachments that protrude on its sides. The organ remains attached to its body until the time of mating.
A drone bee will mount on the queen bee from behind and then insert its organ or endophallus into her spermatheca. The process is explosive and the drone body undergoes spontaneous contraction that inflates the penis. He will then fall backwards breaking off the endophallus and leaving it attached to the queen bee. He will then fall off the queen and die.
The drone bees are fed by nurse bees, usually, younger workers that are yet to transition to other complex roles within and outside the beehive. They are fed on bee bread, honey, and pollen. The colony’s production of drones can be used as a sign of a near swarm by the beekeeper. In most cases, the swarm cells will show after drone bees have been raised.
Ideal Number of Drone Bees in Honeybee Colony
Feral honeybees can act as guides on the ideal number of drone bees that should exist in a colony at any given time. This number is pegged at 17% of drone cells in successful feral honeybee colonies. This translates to a single drone frame for every brood box for domesticated honeybees. The bees will draw the drone cells at any given time but with less emphasis towards the end of productive seasons.
A new queen should be provided with a drone comb earlier in the season so that it can be drawn. Otherwise, the combs might not be drawn if availed later in the season. Off-peak seasons are predominantly the most challenging for drones since the shortage of pollen and nectar only means one thing; to get rid of unwanted members. The drones are the key targets at this point and they will be evicted from the colony. The worker bees will stop feeding them and end up starving and dying.
Another factor that will lead to the eviction of drone bees from a colony includes the age of a queen bee. Younger laying queens trigger the eviction of drones, unlike colonies with older queens where the drone eviction possibility is lower.
Role of the Drone Bee
The drone bees are essential for honeybee colonies for below reasons:
- They play their instinctive role of mating with the queen bee, making it possible to fertilize the queen’s eggs. These are the eggs that end up being worker or queen bees.
- They are responsible for transmitting useful behavioral traits to future bees. These include traits such as hive hygiene, defense, immunity, ability to winter, kindness, quality and speed to cap honey, colony production during first honey flow, calmness on combs, the tendency to swarm, resistance to diseases, honey yields, and many others.
- During hot seasons they participate in regulating hive temperature and moisture. This is achieved through wing fanning. The larvae and pupae therefore directly benefit from this.
- Drone bees also play a vital role when temperatures fall during colder months or nights. They are capable of generating more heat when compared to worker bees. This helps with heat requirements inside the colony.
Rearing Drone Bees
Honeybee colonies that have a greater number of worker bees tend to raise and maintain a larger number of drones than weaker colonies. This huge number of drones relies on the nurse worker bees for feeding. They are fed on honey, gland secretions, and pollen.
Larger drone numbers depend on the supply of pollen that is provided by the foraging workers and not on the colony’s food reserves. On average, strong honeybee colonies need between 300 to 400g of pollen every day, or between 2.1 to 2.8 kg in a week.
A honeybee colony that has a reliable supply of pollen rears and maintains the recommended number of drone populations. Conversely, those colonies that do not receive a reliable supply of pollen exhibit fewer drone populations. The colony that lacks a continuous supply of pollen will therefore be prone to evict drones.
There is a strong correlation between drone bee eviction and the amount of fresh pollen that is collected by a honeybee colony. If pollen supplies that come to the colony dwindle, then drones will be evicted. Conversely, prolonged pollen supplies translate to a reduced possibility of evicting drones from the beehive.
Eviction of drone bees has also been found to be reduced when the queen bee is not available. The drones will also be evicted where the external hive temperatures have fallen and there is an existing laying queen or laying workers.
As mentioned before, colonies that have a younger queen also exhibit higher rates of drone evictions unlike those with an older queen. Furthermore, unreliable weather conditions that affect pollen production and prevent foragers from collecting pollen result in drone eviction.
How the Beekeeper Can Rear and Maintain Drone Bees
The honeybee colonies might have the control of deciding when to produce drone bees but the beekeeper can help accelerate or minimize drone bees production. This can be done in the following ways:
1. Extension of Drone Breeding Season
This can be achieved through the provision of sufficient pollen or pollen supplements. It is the most common strategy used by beekeepers. This should be availed regularly and consistently to eliminate the possibility of the worker bees evicting existing drone bees from the colony. Alternatively, the honeybee colonies can be moved to a richer area for a short time. This proves to be a viable option for most beekeepers since it helps sustain their bees before pollen becomes abundant in their rearing grounds.
The adult drone bees can also be maintained out of season by queen removal and bringing in frames of bees and brood from another that has a healthy queen. The colony should then be provided with sufficient pollen and pollen supplements. The abundance of pollen leads to the production and maintenance of adult drones, eggs, pupae, and larvae.
The lack of pollen within 48 hours instantly impacts the drone larvae. Its eggs, pupae, and adults will however be maintained. A further absence of pollen for another 7 days will lead to the elimination of the various stages of the drone bee except for the adult drones. Further shortage of pollen for periods of 14 days and more will lead to the complete elimination of adult drones and all their stages of development.
Once the beekeeper identifies empty drone cells or drone cells that have been used for honey storage within the brood area, they should provide pollen for the honeybees to begin rearing drones.
2. Use Strong Colonies
Honeybee colonies can never be equal in terms of productivity. Two colonies within the same location and under the same conditions with the same types of flowers will differ in terms of productivity. This can be attributable to the variance in the bee strain and queen bee quality. This will also apply to the honeybee colony’s ability to produce drone cells and drone bees.
The beekeeper can introduce a new strain of bees in the colony by replacing the queen with one from a desired strain. This process is what is termed requeening of the colony. This method helps restore the colony’s productivity even where the queen is old or where her laying capacity is impaired. The new queen can be acquired from a queen breeder or local beekeeper that has an understanding of bee behavior, beekeeping, and bee handling.
Good queens are not easily available given the various factors that affect the quality of the queen. They require ample pollen and nectar quality. The drones that mate with the queen should also be sexually mature and of good quality to produce healthy future queens. Additionally, the right conditions should prevail when the drones are on mating flights with the queen.
The healthy and young queen bee should be introduced to a struggling colony to help restore the colony’s productivity, which includes the optimal production of the drone bees.
3. Introducing Drone Combs
Strategic placement of drone combs can help boost the production of drone bees in honeybee colonies. The combs should be placed in the middle of the brood chamber during autumn. The comb should comprise a mixture of worker and drone cells. During the onset of spring, one or more frames with drone cells should be added. This should however be subject to hive strength and prevailing weather conditions.
The worker bees instinctively accelerate worker brood productivity in spring and minimize the production of drone brood during late fall. Equally, drone production is increased by the worker bees during spring and therefore the only way to manipulate the bees into producing drone brood off-season is through aggressive feeding or provision of pollen or pollen substitute.
A drone comb frame that has been introduced into the middle of a colony should be allowed to remain for about 5 days. At the end of this, the cells should be filled with eggs and larvae and this first comb can be moved above the queen excluder. A new drone comb can then be replaced in its place to encourage the build-up of drone eggs and larvae. It is also wise to give the queen ample space for drone production. One or two drone brood frames availed during seasons of abundance will certainly guarantee the production of high-quality drone bees.
This method might not work in all colonies since the ability to raise drone bees is pegged on the colony’s natural disposition to raise drone bees. You can ascertain this by evaluating the first drone comb within five days. If it is not full of eggs and larvae then the colony is not inclined to produce drones. You will then have to introduce capped worker brood from another colony and repeat the process until the colony’s behavior or disposition to make drones is rectified.
4. Proper Management of Drone Mother Colonies
The drone mother colony refers to a colony of bees with a proven queen as the head and under the management of the beekeeper to ensure the required number of drones and quality is met prior to mating with a virgin queen. Drone mother colonies can be anywhere between 4 to 10 in number to cater to 100 mating nuclei.
The majority of the queen bees in domesticated honeybee colonies do not meet the requirement of a capacity of 4.5 million sperm per queen within the spermatheca after successfully mating with the drone bees. This is a common problem that is resolved by proper management of the drone mother colonies just as one does with queen cell-raising colonies.
12 to 18 drones will be required to mate with a virgin queen bee. These are ideally male bees that are aged between 16 to 28 days. On average, 100 mating nuclei will be serviced by not less than 1,200 mature drones. Additionally, more than 6,000 sexually mature drones are required within an area with 100 queen bees that are ready for mating.
Drone mother colonies should be situated about 2 to 2.5 km from a queen mating apiary. This is a pre-requisite for successful mating for virgin queens. European queen bees are known to engage in mating flights within a distance of 2 km from the hive on average. Those that lack other drone sources will mate with drones from mother colonies that exist within a radius of 300m from queen mating hives.
5. Instrumental Insemination of Queen Bees
This is a new method of drone bee management that allows beekeepers to introduce, advance, and maintain the best traits in honeybee colonies. Some of these desired traits include gentleness, high productivity, colony hygiene, development, and others. This controlled breeding method entails collecting semen from drones with desirable colony characteristics and then administering it to a virgin queen derived from a queen with desirable traits.
Instrumental insemination helps beekeepers refine, develop, and preserve desirable colony traits. This strategy helps to eliminate the need to engage the queen bee in mating flights where they get exposure to drones from unknown backgrounds. It allows the beekeeper to have complete control over the outcome of colony characteristics, eliminate unwanted traits, and bring in new traits from admirable colonies.
Good colony characteristics are passed on by the drones and queen bees. The drone bee originates from an unfertilized egg and that means he carries the characteristics of its mother, the queen bee. The drones are therefore responsible for transmitting the grandmother’s characteristics to future bees.
Instrumental insemination can only be successful when the chosen queen and drones have attained sexual maturity during the insemination. The ideal age for the virgin queen should be between 5 to 14 days from the day it emerges from the cell. The desired queen can be raised from within or purchased from a reputable queen breeder. Getting one from within the apiary will mean it becomes possible to handpick the queen that has known characteristics. The downside to it is that it requires a lot of work to do so.
Sexually mature drone bees are those that are 38 to 44 days old from the day their egg is hatched on the drone comb. A 38-day drone bee has attained sexual maturity and will be ideal for insemination until 44 days old. After this age, drones’ semen tends to decline in quality. Good-quality semen migrates easily into the queen’s spermathecae, whereas poor-quality semen accumulates in the queen’s oviducts. Thus, proper timing is required to guarantee successful queen bee insemination.
Instrumental insemination of the queen bee is carried out as per below Steps:
Step 1 – Semen collection
This is the first and most delicate and time-consuming part of the whole process. The semen is drawn from white mucus that usually clogs the tip of the collecting syringe. This can waste a lot of your time. For best results, a little semen should be expelled from the tip of the syringe into the semen to be collected to allow the beekeeper to suck it in without mucus or bubbles.
Step 2 – Semen storage
The collected semen is kept in a capillary tube with the capacity to collect semen from 200 drones. This is then left to mix for 24 hours so that the inseminated queen bee can get sperms from as many drones as possible.
Step 3 – Inseminating the virgin queen
The virgin queen is put to sleep with the use of carbon dioxide. She will then be positioned in the insemination device. Her stinger is pushed aside and the syringe is inserted. About 8 microliters of semen are injected into the queen’s oviducts to allow the sperm to migrate to the spermatheca. The inseminated queen can then be labeled or earmarked with the use of an identification number. One or half of her forewing can then be clipped to immobilize her and prevent her from engaging in mating flights. This will also help identification in case the identification mark is lost.
Drone bees play an important role in honeybee colonies. The success of bees over the thousands of years they have been around relied hugely on some successful genes. These are responsible for helping the honeybees adapt to different environments all over the world. These important genes are passed along from the many drone genes acquired during the mating flight. The outcome of the mating with different drones is exhibited by the variety of advantageous traits that can be seen within the honeybee colony. The open competition in mid-air that allows only the stronger and faster drones to mate with the queen contributes to the guaranteed transmission of successful genes to future generations of bees. The bottom line is that drone bees are the agents of honeybee genes and should therefore be reared and handled in the same manner the beekeeper does with the queen bees.
What are your thoughts on this article? Leave a comment below and let us know.