Swiss reader, Alexandra, writes a number of pertinent questions about drone bees and their role in honey bee reproduction. She asks, “How does a queen find drones for mating? Will they hang out near her hive until she comes out on her mating flight? Is the mating going on while in the air? Are these drones from various hives, or just from one? Does any mating occur with her own drones, who genetically would be her own children? Do drones die after mating? What are the drones doing all day before it’s time for mating flights? Why are drone eggs infertile? Why do workers need to be fertile? And, lastly, what happens if the bees have to stay home a few days, like in stormy weather?”
I’ll try to answer: Drones from many hives fly to spaces called drone concentration areas, DCAs, where they mate with queen bees in flight. Young queen bees fly to DCAs, usually more distant than ones occupied by drones from her own hive, making it unlikely for queens to mate with genetically similar hive mates. This helps prevent inbreeding, which results in inferior offspring. In the DCAs, drones seek flying queens by sight and pheromones. Drones die in the act of mating; usually more than a dozen mate with a queen. Alexandra questions the drones’ activity outside of their mating flights. Drones conduct no work; they eat honey and rest inside the hive. Workers and queens develop from fertile eggs, and drones develop from infertile eggs in a scheme, common among stinging insects, known as parthenogenesis. When queens make their mating flights, over a day or two, they collect a life-time’s supply of sperm from drones. The queens then self-fertilize each egg that they lay that is to become a worker or queen. If the queen lays an egg without fertilizing, it becomes a drone. Inclement weather can delay mating flights. Long delays result in sterile queens, like the drone-layer shown in today’s photo.