The purple martin is the largest member of the swallow family. These strong flying, insect-eating birds migrate to North America in the spring, and return to South America in the summer. Martins nest in gourds hanging from vines in treetops or in man-made bird houses mounted on poles. During the spring and early summer, martins rear their young. They catch great numbers of flying insects to feed their rapidly growing offspring, and the martins are feeding young birds at the same time that honey bee colonies are at the height of queen bee production. Soaring high in the sky and performing aerial acrobatics, the martins grab flying insects at will. As martins climb, dive, and sweep through honey bee drone concentration areas 20 to 80 feet in the air, they likely catch some queen bees making mating flights as well as drones.
Peace Bee Farm employs drone-breeder colonies with added drone brood frames to increase the number of drones in the drone concentration areas with valued traits. This technique, called drone saturation, is intended to lessen queen matings with feral drones. While some healthy bees are lost to martin predation, I feel like the birds actually help by eliminating weak or slow flying queens and drones. Martins surely apply selective pressure on queen bees while the queens are vulnerable outside the hive. It is evident that martins fly through drone concentration areas, because numbers of drones follow the martins back to their nest. Drones have large eyes to see queen bees making their mating flights. They seem to be attracted to the martins that fly through their drone concentration area. Following a fast moving martin, a plume of drones has no trouble keeping up with the bird as it sweeps through the sky. The drones follow the martins all the way back to their nest. Today’s photo shows a drone in close pursuit of a martin. The birds seem to pay no attention to their “comet tail” of drones.