Honey bee colonies are made up of large numbers of bees, but they rely upon only a few bees for reproduction. Each colony has one female reproductive member, the queen, and a few hundred male reproductive members, the drones. The remainder of the colony’s bees, numbering in the thousands, are workers, female bees that do not have complete reproductive systems. Each of these three castes of bees has specific roles in the life of the colony. The queen lays all of the eggs; the workers perform all of the tasks involved in collecting food and feeding the developing bees. However, the drones have a sole purpose: They provide sperm for the reproduction of new queens and workers. Drones don’t do any of the work in the hive; they don’t gather food; they consume the food produced by the workers. Drones are solely available to mate with newly emerged queen bees. At the times of the year when honey bees are producing new queens, drones meet these queen bees and mate in flight in aerial spaces known as drone concentration areas.
The time that queen production and mating occurs is spring through fall. Honey bees don’t produce queens in the winter, so there is no need at that time for drones. Keeping drones in the hive during cold weather drains precious winter food resources. As winter approaches, workers forcefully eject the drones from their hives. Some drones are drug out of the hive by workers, pulling the larger drones by their legs and wings as in today’s photo. Some drones are stung to death by their sister workers. It is common to find dead drones on the ground as cold weather approaches. The number of drones that beekeepers find in their hives depends upon whether the colonies are producing queens. Newly established colonies will have few drones, and there will be few drones during late summer nectar dearths. One exception exists: queenless colonies will often retain their drones through the winter.