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)

A Promise and a Worry

“It still seems quiet.”
“Especially compared to your big hive.”

We noticed the difference Monday evening at the end of our Wally-walk. For those unfamiliar with my other obsession, Wally is our 10 year old black lab/pitty/boxer mix who insists on his walk after dinner. We oblige.

As he zipped past the apiary and through the fence, curly boxer tail high, I took a longer look at the two hives. My burly hive, six boxes tall, was covered with honeybees at the front entrance, like one huge extended family sitting on the front stoop to escape the heat inside on a muggy summer night, gesticulating with their wings and gossiping with their pheromones. Next door at the small hive, just a few bees idly walked the front porch of their home. They weren’t being unneighborly, it was that much cooler inside their home with fewer wingbeats generating heat.

But were there enough bees inside to sustain the colony?
And was the queen laying?

Tuesday morning, I lugged my equipment from the basement to the apiary, reciting the mantra “Check Your Bees.” Smoker lit, hive tool in hand, and another gallon of sugar water at the ready, I removed the covers and began my descent into the belly of the hive. They seemed contented enough, a communal buzz rising from the depths of the frames. This usually means the queen is in residence and wafting her all-is-well pheromones through the hive. I pried the end frame up and found barely drawn comb, a few bees. Ok, I told myself, so bees move up and out; the end frames are the last ones they work. This was true. Frames 2-7 each had an ample nursery of capped brood surrounded by nectar and pollen. The queen has been busy!

A bird’s eye view of bees and brood

I hefted off this box and set it gingerly aside, apologizing to a couple squished honeybees. In the middle box, I found more of the same, with lots of testy workers. Humans aren’t the only ones who get grumpy in hot and humid weather. By frame #8, that contented buzz had changed its pitch as guards rose up in defense, pinging my veil and generally letting me know I was no longer welcome. Enough. I’d seen what I needed to see.

The queen was present, if unseen. There’s still one nagging worry, however. I did not see any eggs or uncapped brood. Different stages of development tell me that the queen is actively laying over time, so important as they enter the fall season. The last eggs she lays in the fall will become the winter workers that protect her through the winter.

Cooler mornings are coming soon and I’ll get down to that lowest box. Right now, I’m breathing a partial sigh of relief.
Check. Your. Bees.


Honeybee Trivia by the Numbers

A medium frame has about 3100 hexagonal cells per side. At 2 sides per frame, that’s 6,200 cells. With 8 frames per box, that’s 49,600 cells to put eggs, nectar and pollen.

Medium frame showing hexagonal cells

The queen lays between 1,000 and 3,000 eggs per day.
Workers travel up to a mile and visit 50 to 100 flowers each time they leave the hive to collect nectar and pollen.
Fill ‘em up, girls!

close up of frame with brood