Drones- by Sarah Gabric



Male honey bees are called drones because of the deep thrumming sound their wings create in flight. I think of drones as the burly, bumbling, big-eyed teddy bears of the insect world: having no stinger, they cannot sting, having a short tongue and no pollen baskets they’re not much good at foraging and though they won’t stand still long enough for you to cuddle them, they look adorably cuddlable.


Haploid, the product of parthenogenesis, the progeny of unfertilized eggs, drones have only one set of chromosomes. They have grandfathers but no fathers. Queen-laid drone eggs are usually produced at a ratio of about one male to every one hundred females from mid-spring to mid-summer. These eggs are laid in larger cells, called drone comb, often located toward the bottom and outer edges of the nest, made especially for the purpose of housing them. When drone cells are capped, they look puffed-out and bulging.


Male bees spend their first three days as eggs, the following six and a half as larvae, and two weeks as pupae. After metamorphosing from a tiny speck into a brawny bro, emerging on day twenty-four, he now must wait another two weeks to reach sexual maturity. At around day eight he begins to take short cleaning flights and in a small bid for independence moves from the nursery, where he was up to this point fed by house bees, to the honey comb, where he can feed himself.


Around day fourteen post-emergence, this glorious flying machine, with his huge eyes, long antennae and seminal vesicles bursting with around twelve million spermatozoa, takes to the skies in search of a drone congregation area (DCA). He can make up to six, twenty-five minutes flights per day, returning between each unsuccessful foray to refuel.


DCAs occur in the same general locations year after year and are dynamic groupings wherein thousands of drones converge, disperse, gather again a little while later, a small distance away, scatter again, reassemble again and so on.  When a queen approaches a DCA her pheromonal signature precedes her and is detected at up to two hundred feet away. The drones who perceive her assemble in a V-shaped throng and so begins a contest of speed, agility, and stamina. Only about a hundred of the thousands of suitors endure to approach her. This group, called a drone comet, continue to tail the queen until a champion outstrips his peers and gains purchase.


When a drone is successful in catching a queen, the mating process itself is fleeting, taking less than two seconds to complete. During those two precious seconds most of the drone’s muscles contract and his bodily fluids are channeled into his endophallus. The resulting pressure pushes his spermatozoa into the queen’s bursa copulatrix. At this point the drone is paralyzed, partially invaginated, and energetically spent. He falls from the sky to perish shortly thereafter.


Those drones who do not successfully mate and survive into late summer/early fall are usually subject to death, nonetheless. The process wherein the drones are terminated is colloquially known as the expulsion, eviction, or massacre of the drones. The workers, having determined that the burden of the drones’ appetites is no longer offset by their potential to mate with virgin queens, execute the expulsion with varying degrees of brutality: sometimes the workers drag their bovine brothers from the hive wrestling, biting, disabling and even dismembering them, at other times they simply barricade the hive entrance against the drones’ reentry. The hapless drones are then left to beg at the entrance and denied entrance, starve. Not all colonies expel all their drones every year but generally sometime around Labor Day colonies see fit to conserve resources and the drones become expendable and are thus eliminated.