We hear so much about Worker bees and Queen bees, but have you ever heard of a Drone Bee? Did you know this is the ONLY male bee in a whole bee colony? His life is short but his purpose is of utmost importance. Let's take a closer look at these honey bee stud muffins and learn about their role in the hive.
First of all, can we talk about how cool these Drone bee's look?!? While some of their features are similar to that of any regular honeybee, one of the main features that sets the drone apart is their HUGE eyes. They may look like a set of cool aviator shades, but don't let that fool ya', those eyes are big for a very important reason. Drone's sometimes mate with the Queen mid flight so eyesight is very important! But first they'll need those big eyes to spot the Queen as she makes her flight past their man cave.
I'm getting ahead of myself, let's go back to the beginning. Within any hive, both the Queen and the worker bee can lay eggs. However, only the Queen's eggs will be fertilized. Fertilized eggs will result in both worker bees and future Queens, unfertilized eggs will result in Drone bees. The population of the hive and need for fertilization is dependent upon the hives needs at that point in time. For example, a large population of Drone bees in a single hive can indicate there is an issue with the Queen, or that maybe the hive has lost its Queen.
One important job for Worker bees is to build cells for the Queen to lay eggs into. The size of these cells can also help the Queen determine her fertilization needs. Larger cells are made to house the Drones' larger, plumper bodies as they grow. If a Queen encounters one of these cells, she knows to lay unfertilized eggs there.
Once the egg is laid, it will transition as normal to larva. The Drone, as with Worker bees is fed royal jelly for the first 2-3 days to ensure they get the protein they need to jumpstart their development. From that point on they are fed a mixture of honey and pollen (sometimes referred to as bee bread). Around day 24 the Drone will hatch from its cell and begin his mission.
In addition to his larger eyes, Drone bees are born with a thick plumpy body and long legs. His abdomen is very boxy and his head is very rounded compared to the other bees. Drone wings are also very large and tend to cover the entire stomach. Additionally, Drone bees are born with no stinger, but they have an appendage tucked within their body specifically for mating (this correlation will come into play later).
During the Spring and Summer the Drone bees will hang out near the hive in what's called a Drone Congregation Area (DCA), in hopes of being part of a Queen bee's mating flight. Within this very short time frame, hundreds of thousands of Drone bees will compete to mate with a Queen. And a Queen may mate with up to 20 Drones during her many mating flights, including Drones from other colonies. Although the competition is fierce, the Drone bees do not fight for a chance to be with the Queen, the winner is determined by who can fly the closest to the Queen and successfully mate with her.
You remember how I mentioned that no stinger/mating appendage correlation before? Well prepare yourself for some sadness. Similar to how a Worker bee using her stinger often costs her her life, when a Drone bee mates with the Queen it happens with such force that his mating appendage is typically ripped from his abdomen. In attempting to pass on his genetic lineage, the Drone will give his life mating with the Queen, dying shortly after.
Unfortunately, that may be the best death a Drone bee can hope for. Those that survive mating season hang around the hive helping to keep it cool. But because they don't fill any of the other necessary roles required for hive life...they are expendable. As summer turns to fall, the Drone becomes a drain on resources. The hive cannot afford to feed him or take care of him any longer, and especially not for the whole winter. When foraging and flowers become more scarce, the Worker bees will force the Drone bees from the hive, leaving them to starve to death or die from hypothermia. Sometimes Drones will attempt to sneak back inside the hive, but Guard bees see everything and will drag them out - sometimes even attacking and killing them - to ensure they are gone for good.