A Drone's Life

E75 is the first of his brothers to hatch but his story begins weeks earlier, with a crew of sisters working the wax.  Bees know the shape of the honeycomb in a way that can never be forgotten.  It is a core tenet of their instinct.  The size of the cell is quite variable and with honeybees, size matters.  Actually diameter matters.  It is the diameter of a cell that determines if a cell is fit for holding honey, pollen, worker bees, or drones.  What the colony needs foremost and always is workers.  Without a constant female influx it will die.  That said, the colony cannot ignore the possibility, indeed the likely hood that the colony will need to replace its queen.  To do that it must raise drones.

The sisters can sense the type of brood in the hive by their scent because different sex brood emit different pheromones.  When the scent of worker brood is strong in a colony the workers change from building worker cells to drone cells.  These cells have a much larger diameter than the worker cells.  This is to support the growth of a much larger bee.  It doesn’t take much additional volume to create a bee that looks gigantic opposed to its sisters.  It is in just such a cell that E75’s egg is laid.  The queen inspects it and recognizes it as a drone cell.  When she lays the egg she skips a vital step – the egg is not fertilized.  The drones are her sons and hers alone. 

The first days of E75’s life are no different than any other bee’s, with one minor exception:  Each bee that visits his egg to check on it will decide whether or not to devour it.  The colony does not tolerate drones if it does not have workers.  E75’s colony is strong and he hatches on the third day.  The workers now care for him as they would any other and he grows fat quickly.  Drone larva quickly fill their cell and are forced to lay out along their cells, too fat to curl up anymore. 

On the tenth day of his life E75 is ready to be capped, but now the sisters must do something new.  He is so large he juts out of the cell.  The sisters craft a curved cap for his cell, rounded like a bullet.  Inside he spins a cocoon and goes to sleep.  Drones will spend longer capped than any other type of bee.  For the next fourteen days his body will change.  Worker sisters hatch four days earlier.  On the day E75 is ready to emerge his sisters have already been hard at work for three days.

Even the manner of his emergence says that E75 is different.  Worker bees chew the caps off of their own cells, but E75 is too large to do so.  His head barely fits in the domed capping and his jaws cannot reach the wax.  It falls to his sisters to chew his capping away and hoist him from his cell.  From the moment he crawls onto the comb he dwarfs them.  His only rival in size is the queen.  She is longer but he is wider and rounder.

E75 immediately heads for an open cell of nectar and begins eating.  A newly hatched worker joins him, then heads back to clean her cell once she has rested.  E75 watches her go.  Where his sisters feel an immediate urge to begin work he feels only the need to relax and eat.  He finds a snug spot among the brood and rests there.

This is how he passes the next week, venturing out only to test his wings.  Around eleven days after E75 hatches he feels his first true calling.  Up until now his body has not actually been ready to fulfill the function for which he was born.  E75 may seem like a slacker against the backdrop of his sisters but in truth he is extremely specialized.  Where his sister’s abdomen ends in a stinger E75 has nothing, only a sperm sac.  He cannot defend the hive.  He cannot draw wax.  He is too large to fit into a cell to feed or clean.  On this day E75 learns his purpose.

He flies out of the hive and circles above the foragers on their pilgrimage to the flowers.  His eyes see different things from the same landscape, his instincts calculate new locations from the same sun.  He flies away not lost but not knowing where he is going.  A half a mile away he comes to rest in the top of a pear tree.  In the cool shadow of a leaf E75 rests.  Then he spots something.  E75, like all drones, has massive eyes, so large they touch at the top of his head.  This is so that he can spot a queen on her mating flight.  What he has spotted this time though, is another drone.  Another, and another.  The longer he sits on his leaf the more drones he picks out.  They are waiting in this grove.  It is the drone congregation area. 

The other drones may be his brothers or from other hives.  They will gather together anyway and wait.  In the evening E75 returns to the hive and begins eating again.  He will repeat this ritual over and over, all the days he is alive.  He does it not just for his colony, but for any others in the area. For weeks he lounges in the shade.

Then one cool day the wind brings a scent that sets the drone enclave to humming.  Sharks may be fearsome with their scent of blood in millions of gallons of water but drones are equally driven by the tiny scent of a queen.  Not just any queen.  This is no swarm forming, no mated queen on the loose.  This is a virgin queen.  E75 moves to the top of the tree and takes off, circling.  A cloud of drones goes with him.  His huge eyes are made for this moment and he picks up a tiny blur along the tree tops.  The chase is on.

A storm of drones pursues the virgin demanding her attentions.  She flies faster, higher.  The weaker drones drop back but E75 continues on.  They are high above the ground now as the queen slows now.  Drones dart in and out, hovering just out of reach.  They couple together and the drones drift away one at a time.  E75 is not jealous, just hopeful – at any point the queen could plunge away and return to her hive.  Flying dangerously he collides with the drones above him, dodges the ones just to the side and dives into position.  He flexes his abdomen, hooking to the queen.  Instinct takes over.  With a sudden jerk he flexes away and pain shoots through him.  He pulls harder and separates from her, leaving a part of himself behind.  Now he is falling away.  Before he strikes the ground E75 is dead, his life purpose complete.

The view of the Hive from the House

In a colony of 10,000 females, you might wonder what the thousands of female workers think as word spreads that there'll soon be a male moving in. I suspect I know the answer:

"There goes the neighborhood."

When a colony is first established, what it needs most is workers.  That means females.  In Honeybees, all females have two parents, but the males (drones) develop from unfertilized eggs.  In fact, one of the surest signs of a failing queen is that she begins to lay only drones.  For the first few months, the colony produces mainly workers.  It's a sure sign that a colony is getting on its feet when a few drone cells show up.

How do you tell if a given cell is a drone or a worker?  Well, you don't open the top and look under its skirt. Workers fit nicely into a normal depth cell.  Drones, however, are both wider and longer than workers, and resemble fat fuzzy flying barrels.  The drone cells have caps like the nose of a .22 bullet, curving swiftly to a blunt point.  

A hatched drone is near impossible to miss in the hive.  He's considerably larger, and his eyes literally touch on top of his head - an adaptation for spotting queens who might be on a mating flight.  The only bee close to him in size is the queen (as a matter of fact, practicing on drones is recommended for learning to handle queens)  The drone (like many males) will likely serve no purpose to the colony during his life span.  He eats, craps in the hive (the females clean it up), and hangs around.

He is an insurance policy, in case the colony needs a new queen, and cashing in on that policy will mean his death.

Drones do not gather honey. They do not gather pollen. They do not clean, or care, or do anything other than hang out in the local "Drone Congregation Area."  No matter how many hives you have in an area, the drones select a particular area, and gather loosely there to watch for queens on mating flights.  It is unknown how it is that drones from one season to the next choose the same congregation area, since none normally survive.  Nor is it known how the queen, on her second flight from the hive, knows where the congregation area is.

In the fall, the workers will drag the hapless drones from the hive, and refuse to allow them to return.  Thanks, your services are no longer needed.  During the summer though, the drone waits all day for a queen.  His sole purpose in life is to procreate, but nature has played a cruel trick upon him.  

To mate is to die.

The same mechanism that forms a worker's stinger is adapted to provide the drone's sexual organs.  Bees die after stinging.  Drones die after mating, his genitals left with the queen, and queens are trollops.  

They mate with up to ten or more drones, *while* flying.  The different parentage has a number of benefits to the hive.  Workers from different fathers begin to cool or heat the hive at different levels, leading to a more even temperature.  

It takes longer to hatch a drone than any other bee, and even when hatched, they aren't actually ready.  It takes another week or so before they are ready to fulfill their duty. I tell mine to stay in the hive, kick back, and take it easy.  Those one flight stands will kill you.

The Hive at Home

Many beekeepers spend their time attempting to control the number of drones in the hive.  They feel that a drone’s specialized nature is just a drag on the resources of the colony.  If the queen fails, they’ll order a mated queen to replace her.  They are struggling against nature itself.

In hives built with foundation there is no appropriate place for the bees to build drone cells, but the colony still feels the need.  The right number of drones in a colony is a tiny fraction of population, but the bees need this balance and they will fight to maintain it.  If that means drawing drone cells in between frames or from the tops of hive top feeders, that’s what they’ll do.  The beekeepers tear these cells out and the bees rebuild them.

I leave my bees to draw their own comb and they mix drones in with the workers as they feel is appropriate. If the colony doesn’t need drones they’ll devour the eggs.  Drones can be of great use in the battle with varroa mites, as we shall see later.