Imagine being a female with no competition from any other female and all males buzz around fighting for you! Sounds flattering, doesn’t it? Not for the drones though!
Drones – Easy Life
Drones are often mistaken for the queen. Not because they live an easy life! They have no duties like collecting nectar, foraging for pollen or contributing to daily ‘household’ chores. Their only use apart from mating is to contribute to the temperature in the hive. If it gets too cold they generate heat by shivering, if it gets too warm they move the air with their wings like fans.
Because they have no other important roles apart from mating, most colonies do not have drones all year round, presumably to preserve food supplies. When a colony wants to raise reproductive males, the queen will be prompted to lay unfertilized eggs.
Drones – Anatomy
With 15 to 17 mm, drones are much bigger than worker bees and weigh about 200 g, which is as much as the queen.
Even though they are about the same size as a queen, their body shape is more rounded and ‘plumper’ than that of a queen. Because of their appearance, they may sometimes get confused with bumblebees. They have no stinger, honey stomach and pollen baskets because they don´t need to protect the colony or gather food. Drones´ eyes are larger than those of other bees because they only leave the hive to mate at night.
Drones – Life Cycle
Drones may have a sweet, easy life at first, but their life expectancy is only about 55 to 90 days, while workers live from five to seven weeks and queens can even live several years!
They develop from unfertilized eggs, a natural form of asexual reproduction called parthenogenesis. Drones are haploid (cells that contain a single set of chromosomes) with only 16 chromosomes because they have no genetic material from a father. Females are diploid ((cells containing two complete sets of chromosomes, one from each parent) and have 32 chromosomes.
When a drone hatches, it is fed and nurtured by the worker bees. Their food consists of honey, pollen and gland secretions. You may think that the workers get fed up tending to these lazy drones and kick them out! That’s exactly what they do in autumn! Not because they are fed up tending to them; they kick them out so they don’t eat up their winter reserves!
Drones – Congregation Area, The Male Playground
Their only purpose in life is to mate with the queen? Male bees (drones) pay a hefty prize for achieving their ultimate goal and life purpose! They pay with their life!
You could say that there’s also an ‘upside’ for this hefty prize. The drones’ reward for giving their life to mate is to live a somewhat easy life until their service is needed.
When the time has come, the drones leave the colony to fly to the mating site, called ‘congregation areas’. These sites are about 10 to 40 meters above the ground, away from trees and hills. They have a diameter of 30 to 200 meters with distinct boundaries. Did you know that these congregation areas remain the same for years and attract drones from as many as 200 different colonies? This is to ensure genetic diversity and to keep the risk of ‘inbreeding’ with their own queen to a minimum.
A mating flight lasts around 20 to 25 minutes, and drones visit multiple congregation areas during their lifetime, often several per day. Before each flight they return home to strengthen themselves with food.
Drones – Reproductive System
The drones produce a pheromone that attracts the queens. When they ‘smell’ a queen through the pheromones that she releases when she enters the congregation area all, hell breaks loose.
Up to 15 drones can succeed in mating with the queen. The entire process, which takes place in mid-air, only lasts a few seconds. The drone is above the queen, holding her with his six legs and literally shoots the semen into the queen’s oviduct. Did you know this process can sometimes be heard and sounds like a “popping” noise? The ejaculation is so powerful that it ruptures the drone’s body.
The drone’s endophallus (similar to a penis in mammals) is literally ripped from his body leaving the drone to die from the severe injury. This doesn’t stop other drones to give it a shot though! The endophallus of the successful drone remains in the queen and is removed by the next ‘lucky one’.
In late autumn, workers eject drones from the hive. As they are not contributing to the hive´s welfare, they would only deplete its resources unnecessarily. Evicted, the drones die from exposure and their inability to protect or feed themselves. A new generation of drones emerges again in late spring.