Honeybee Biology

The Background Hum



Drone bee on honeycomb

Here in Honeybee Biology, I’ve been describing the members of honeybee society: Her Majesty, the queen, the industrious female workers, and now the … hmmm . . . how does one describe a drone? They’re freeloaders yet vital to the colony’s success. Most of the time they’re laid back bordering on lazy, yet they give it all to their mission when pheromones beckon, dying in the process. They’re allowed to play in the hive all season then bullied out in the fall. It’s all about colony survival. In a healthy hive, drones are the background hum, the harmony behind the melody, a small but important part of the symphony.

Characteristics of Drones

Remember, in a honeybee colony the girls rule, even if the male drones are bigger in size. Drones are pretty docile in comparison too, defenseless without stingers. This is small consolation, however; the ratio of workers to drones in a healthy hive is about 20:1.

Most of the time, adult drones hang out inside feasting on the nectar and pollen supplies. They don’t clean house, defend the hive or watch over the youngsters. They get away with all this because their most important role is to mate with new queens from surrounding colonies. On these mysteriously chosen days in the spring and summer, they’ll fly to an open field called a Drone Congregating Area, drawn by one or more queens with her come-hither pheromones. Mating on the wing, their back half is ripped from the front half, and they give up their lives to the preservation of the species and genetic diversity.

As fall approaches, they’re kicked out of the hive on cool nights by the workers. It’s interesting to watch as they try to make their way back into the hive only to be driven out again and again. It’s not always easy being a drone.

How do you know a drone when you see one?

So, to bring these 3 posts together, the queen lays the eggs, the female workers bring home the pollen and nectar, and the male drones mate with queen. But what do they look like? If you’re a beekeeper you’re probably way ahead of me and know this already. If you’re a beginning beekeeper or are just plain curious, this will set you straight.

Queens are the longest, but not the widest. They have slender tawny colored abdomens, a cone-shaped back end, and small wings compared to the others. When it comes to finding the queen, you almost have to look for her out of the corner of your awareness. If you look too hard, she’ll be elusive. On days when I stop trying so hard, she generally pops right out at me. Workers are the smallest with well-proportioned eyes. They’re fuzzy too, which almost makes them cute in that cartoony sort of way (except for the stinger). And that stinger on their hiney? It’s the remnants of their reproductive system; workers are sterile. The queen doesn’t tolerate competition. Most of the honeybees in a hive are workers so they’re hard to miss. Generally, they’re the ones out on the flowers too. Drones look a lot like workers except they’re bigger and their eyes take up most of their head. You’ll find enough of them wandering around the frames to make the distinction.


Oh, and one more thing: an update on my smallest hive.

Checking last week with my beekeeping buddy Tim, we found young uncapped brood, a good sign. The queen is still laying. I can breathe a sigh of relief that there will be enough workers to snuggle with the queen over the winter.

You can see little white bee larvae in some of these hexagonals. The golden ones have already been capped.


Ok, one more thing: the bee fact of the day:

Drones eat three times as much food as workers.

Next B-day: How to Frame a Mite (and it’s all about the drones)

2 thoughts on “The Background Hum

  1. Wow, it is fascinating how the drones, workers and queen work together! I guess if I was a bee, I’d hope to be a worker. But it takes all to make a bee world! Nice photos–the ones who drink from our birdbath definitely look like workers.


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