“Sorry, boys. It’s just gotta happen.” I was talking to my bees, which I admit happens often. The green drone frame I pulled from the hive was brimming with drone pupae, their caps rising above each hexagonal like fresh baked muffins. Given 3 or 4 more days, they would hatch into thousands of drones. Instead I was about to put them in the freezer.
I know. Me, killing things, right? The one who won’t sweep the spider egg cases and their mamas from my front porch. All that work those mamas did to make and protect those egg sacs. I just can’t. And yet, all the work the queen bee did to meticulously place an egg in each cell, all the effort from the workers to feed and protect them. Here I am sinking these drones into deep freeze. Why?
The short answer is mite control. I’ll try to keep the long answer short too.
Mites have been pestering bees for almost as long as there have been bees. Mites themselves aren’t all bad. We too have our own mite populations that devour our dander and dead skin cells. Without them, we’d be up to our knees in the flaky stuff. Itchy yet?
The species of mite that lives with honeybees, (Varroa destructor is it’s scientific name) does basically the same thing. But when they get out of hand or when viruses piggyback and infect a colony, it’s disastrous for the hive. Until the 1970s, mites and bees lived pretty much in balance. Then a strain of mite hitched a ride on honeybees imported from Europe in the 1980s, settling in and overwhelming their hosts. Colonies abandoned hives just to get away. Worse, these mites carried viruses that American bees had little resistance to. This fueled Colony Collapse Disorder, that mysterious, multifactorial syndrome that’s been so hard on bees and their keepers. There’ll be more about CCD in later posts.
But what’s all this got to do with drone pupae? Drones, those lazy males, have risen as shining stars in mite control. Just like when they mate, once again, these guys sacrifice their lives for the good of the colony.
Here’s how it works. Remember, drones are bigger than workers and this is true throughout every stage of their development. A drone frame is specially designed to have slightly larger hexagonal cells than a standard frame. Queens, in their mystical wisdom will lay drone eggs in these frames, keeping them in a tidy group. The really cool thing about drone pupae is that mites happen to like them best. In early stages of development, the cells are open and mites will climb in and settle down to mature right alongside the drones. On day 10, the cells are capped (the equivalent of a chrysalis) and the mites are trapped. For every capped drone, there can be as many as a half dozen mites developing. To remove a drone frame and replace it with a fresh one every 3 weeks is to significantly reduce the mite population. Less itch, less ditching the hive. Healthier bees, happier beekeepers.
There are other ways to combat mites. Sprinkling Confectioners’ sugar in among the frames every couple weeks annoys the bees but eliminates some mites. The bees, looking like little white ghosts, groom each other, removing mites in the process. But I’m certain this sugary coating weighs them down. Carrying extra baggage and spending time grooming aren’t the best use of their time and energy. Chemicals are a choice but can be expensive, require precise timing, and tend to be hard on the queen. Scientists are also researching ways to genetically select for workers with the increased tendency to attack and eat mites on their fellow bees. Imagine. A mite-preening trait, a colony of mini-chimps grooming each other, mite-less and pesticide free.
Until that happens, I’ll stick to the drone frames, apologizing to the boys each time. Out loud.
Drones really are the colony heroes.
Bee trivia by the numbers
If even 6 mites developed with each drone in a full drone frame, it would potentially remove 31,000 mites every 3 weeks!