Nothing signals the approach of swarm season more reliably than the appearance of drones in the apiary. A colony won’t swarm if the new queen has no way to mate, but once drones are abundant, mating can occur and a populous colony may decide to split.
Drone eggs are laid by the queen in special cells that are larger than worker cells. They can often be seen near the sides of the frame or on the edges of the brood nest. The workers prepare the cells and the queen lays unfertilized eggs in them. Although this is hard for us to grasp, the queen can decide when and where to lay these eggs. Unfertilized eggs always develop into drones, and fertilized eggs can become either workers or new queens.
Organisms with just one set of chromosomes—like the drones—are called haploid. Those with two sets—like the workers and queens—are called diploid. Drone honey bees look very different than the workers. They are bigger, blocky in shape, and have huge eyes that almost meet at the top of their heads. These very sensitive eyes help the drones spot queens flying overhead when they are trying to mate.
Drones play a very different role in the hive than either workers or queens:[list icon=”check”]
- Drones have one major purpose, and that is to mate.
- Once they mate, they die.
- They don’t have stingers, so they can’t defend the hive.
- They generally don’t feed themselves, but beg food from workers.
- They don’t collect pollen, nectar, water, or propolis.
- Drones meet in an area above the ground called a “drone congregation area,” and wait for new queens to arrive (Think of your local tavern.)
- Only the fastest and healthiest succeed at mating. The others go back to the colony at night and try again the next day.
- Drones can make up as much as 15% of the hive population. [/list]
Toward fall when the days are getting shorter and the nights are cooler, the workers stop feeding the drones. When they get weak enough, the workers force them out of the hive where they will starve and die. Just as the appearance of drones in the spring signals the start of the reproductive season, drones struggling with workers at the hive entrance signals the coming of fall.