One of my beekeeping friends recently asked me what it means when you find a large number of drones in the hive. My response may not have elicited great confidence in me. I said that finding great numbers of drones in the hive might mean that the hive is in trouble, or it might mean that the hive is healthy. Shirley Murphy watched a hive with an exceptionally large population of drones slowly dwindle. At the time that the problem started, she didn’t have extra queens or brood and bees available to help her take corrective action. When these became available to her, she found the colony near collapse. Only the queen and a few attendant bees remained in the hive. Wax moths had started consuming the honeycomb, leaving a mess of webbing and feces. A mouse had moved into the unguarded hive. The hive problem, which first presented itself with a large population of drones, started when the queen depleted her lifetime supply of sperm that she gathered at mating time. Without sperm, she could not lay fertile eggs to produce workers or queens; she could only produce the male drones from her infertile eggs. Honey bees produce offspring by either fertile or infertile eggs. Reproduction from infertile eggs, known as parthenogenesis, is unique in the insect order hymenoptera. The order includes bees, wasps, and ants.
A visit to the Peace Bee Farm hives on display at the Children’s Museum of Memphis found large numbers of drones in each hive. Here, the colonies were strong and healthy. Large numbers of drones were being produced to provide male reproductive bees to mate with queen bees. This is a normal occurrence in the spring. If you click on the photo, you can see a number of drones, the larger bees, leaving and entering the hive. The drones fly from two to four hours each afternoon searching for queens. Mating in flight with queen bees is the sole work of drones.