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Drone Congregation Areas are important for the survival and sustainability of honeybee colonies. As the name suggests, it is an area where drone bees congregate in a bid to mate with a virgin queen bee. Bees remain the only known flying insects that engage in this behavior. In this article, we’ll discuss all you need to know about drone congregation areas.
What are Drone Congregation Areas?
Drone congregation areas refer to a place, somewhere high above the ground, and near honeybee colonies where drone bees gather in an effort to attract virgin queen bees. They congregate precisely to attract sexually mature females that are in need of suitable genes to pass on to their future generations.
The business of congregating in these areas is bestowed upon the drone bees that also carry out other minor roles in the honeybee colony. The business will not be complete in the absentia of the key target, the female queen bees. Once the participants are available then mating takes place.
The drone bee will take the longest time to emerge from its capped cell and mature. This could be attributed to their overall body size and physique which suggests it requires time to make them. The large eyes and muscular thoraces are the signature features of the drone bee and these are required during the mating flights. The eyes provide enhanced visibility of the queens and the muscles guarantee stamina in flight.
Newly emerged queen bees that participate in mating flights in the drone congregation areas are built for action from the onset. They come out with their sleek and streamlined bodies with long wings ready to be chased by competing drone bees. They are larger than the worker bees, a little smaller than the drone, and require the least time to mature.
Only honeybees have drone congregation areas. Other types of bees will mate on the ground or while collecting nectar and pollen in flowers. Others visit nesting areas for mating and will not pursue their females as a group the way drone bees do. Additionally, drone bees will mate only once and will die in the process. Other bee species do not exhibit this phenomenon. Instead, the males will mate multiple times without dying.
Drone bees will prepare for drone congregation areas earlier on. Upon being sexually mature at 10 to 12 days, the drone bee will gorge on nectar and pollen in an effort to bulk up. This will help build muscles and increase their sperm levels. The newly emerged drones will also engage in test flights where they get orientated about their locality. On the mating day, they will venture outside the hive in late afternoons and during sunny days for mating.
Drone flights usually last between 10 to 40 minutes a session. The drone will engage in a maximum of four flights at best and those unsuccessful will go back to their hive or land in a nearby hive.
What the Drone Congregation Area Looks Like
The drone congregation area is a marvel to behold if you get a chance to see one. Its size is usually between 100 to 650 feet or 30 to 200m in length. This could be 16 feet above the ground and can also go up to 100 feet off the ground. The congregated bees will also form a conical shape that has a wide bottom and thin top. The preferred location for the congregation is usually an area that is sheltered and free from obstacles. These areas also enjoy plenty of light and significant landmarks such as a tree, standing stones, and burrows are available.
The number of drone bees in a drone congregation area is by far higher than the number of queen bees. The drones will comprise those from the local vicinity since drones opt to join drone congregation areas that are close to home. The queen bees on the other hand will choose drone congregation areas that are far away from their own hive.
Drones that unsuccessful chase a queen will venture out to other drone congregation areas as their search for a potential queen continues. In a way, the drone bee strives hardest to die since at the end of every mating session they have to die. The male bees in any given drone congregation area originate from many different colonies. These are males from hundreds of colonies from the locality to guarantee a wide mix of genetic makeup.
Being a part of the drone congregation is a risky business for both the queen and the drone bee. The flying queen is exposed to the risk of falling into the hands of predator birds and other living creatures that target bees. The drone on the other hand will inevitably face his untimely end after mating since his appendage is dislodged during mating resulting in death. Those drones that are lucky not to mate with a queen will head back to a hive where they are unwelcome. They will be the first to be kicked out by worker bees when seasons of dearth come calling.
The drone congregation area can be identified with the use of a caged queen. Scientists have also found the use of queen pheromones as an effective way of determining drone congregation areas. Insect radars will also help establish the existence of areas with high concentrations of drones. In other cases, the presence of numerous dead drones in areas away from hives will suggest the presence of a drone congregation area.
You might find multiple drone congregation areas in areas where there exist honeybee colonies. The drone bees will fly between these areas as they seek a mate in different locations. These locations tend to be preferred by bees yearly and it is believed that drones might be allured by the vegetation patterns or geographical features in such an area. The male bees are also suspected to be able to detect other male pheromones leading to their congregation.
The Importance of Drone Congregation Areas
Honeybees seem to be smarter than the majority of living organisms in existence. Gene selection and distaste for inbreeding have been a part of the honeybee’s existence for millions of years. Bees embrace these and will take high levels of risk to ensure the future generation originates from a stronger gene.
The drones and the queen bees gather during the mating flights with the purpose of bringing together a wide array of genetic pools from hundreds of colonies within the locality. Doing so allows the successfully mated queen to carry a combination of genes from various colonies. She will also mate with only the drones that are able to catch up with her after outrunning other drones.
Drone congregation areas, therefore, serve two purposes:
1. Avoid inbreeding
The male drones that engage in mating flights have to venture miles away from their home colony, in a search for available drone congregation areas. Research has also shown a bias in drone bee behavior with regard to the queen bees they chase for mating. Drones do not exhibit chasing behavior outside the drone congregation area. This instinctive behavior helps to prevent drones from mating with their sisters or relatives. Ultimately, inbreeding will not be possible.
2. Gene selection
The honeybee world is crippled by so many threats, including diseases, parasites, invaders, unfavorable weather, and so on. Only those bees that are strong enough can withstand all these challenges. The honeybees seem to have adopted drone congregation areas as a way of eliminating weaker genes and propagating only the stronger ones. This natural selection method allows bees to thrive and survive in the harsh environment. The mating flights can be likened to a competition or race where only the strongest and fittest male bees have a chance of mating with the queen. This way, their superior genes will be passed on to the future generation which will have a higher possibility of survival.
The above reasons serve to ensure future bees are healthier and well-placed to face the tough environment they exist in. It can also justify some of the reasons some beekeepers have been skeptical about the artificial insemination of the queen bee. Artificial insemination of the queen bee will not allow for this wide pool of genetic makeup from a wide variety of drone bees to occur.
What Happens in Drone Congregation Areas?
In other words, mating happens in the drone congregation area. However, it is not as simple as that. The drone bees that are higher in number have to compete in chasing and being the first to mate with the queen bee. The successful male will rapture and die as the female continues to mate with a few other drones.
The mating flights will take place in late afternoons when the weather condition is permissive, preferably warm and fair. The participating drones will gather in the congregation area and will return from time to time to their hive to have refreshments before going back to the area. These flights will take place between 2 to 5 pm depending on the weather.
The drone bees will embark on their hunting flights once they venture outside the hive during these flights. Usually, they fly back and forth, patrolling the area and in search of a queen bee. The ready queen will usually belong to a faraway colony, having come to seek a potential mate. The drone bees on the other hand will comprise those from the locality since drones prefer drone congregation areas that are close to their hive.
The number of drone bees is higher in the drone congregation area and only in a few scenarios will there emerge a virgin queen bee that is ready for mating. If this happens then the mating flights begin. The drone bees with the help of their large compound eyes will be able to see the queen from afar, triggering the pursuit. Nonetheless, chasing and mating will only happen within the confines of the drone congregation area. The drones also rely on the queen’s pheromones or chemical messengers that allow them to recognize an incoming queen.
A ready queen will be chased by drone bees that form a comet shape behind her. Each of these drones, usually numbering about 100, will try to outshine the others, chasing the queen around the area in an attempt to mate with her. Only the fastest, strongest, most agile, and healthiest drone bee will be the first to catch up and mate with the queen. The male bee will grab the queen in mid-air and insert its endophallus into the queen’s sting chamber. Semen is released into the queen bee and the drone’s reproductive organs will be ripped off. He will then fall to the ground and die. The whole mating process will take about 3 to 5 seconds to be completed.
A second drone bee will chase the queen, remove the mating sign from the predecessor, and mate with her. The same fate will also befall this drone. Another 12 to 20 drones will follow suit, mating with the queen and dying thereafter. This will happen in a session and will occur for a number of days. The queen might decide to continue to mate with other drones or head back to the hive after mating with the first drone. Mating with more drones will guarantee genetic diversity in the honeybee colony.
After mating, the queen bees will store semen in her reproductive organ referred to by the name spermatheca. This is needed for laying fertilized eggs and will give birth to the future generation of worker bees.
Drone congregation areas are crucial for the survival of honeybee colonies. These areas have remained a mystery to scientists and no one understands how and why honeybees choose certain locations as their preferred congregation spots. In fact, it has been found that certain locations remain the choice spots for drone congregation. How and why these areas are chosen remains unknown. Interestingly, no one has been able to create or influence the choice of a congregation area.
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