bee biology

Drones signal the beginning of swarm season

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.



  • Right both times. The dark cells are empty because the bees already hatched. The big whitish ones contain drones. The smaller tanish ones are workers.

  • I have a question about drones…

    What are they good for exactly? It seems to me that just getting rid of them before they hatch would alleviate a lot of problems, i.e. varroa AND swarming? I just installed my first package bees Saturday and its safe to say I’m a novice. It just seems to me that if you have an already mated queen laying you wouldn’t need drones incubating varroa and inciting swarming riots.

    • Chrissy,

      Drones are needed for mating with virgin queens from other hives. If your queen fails, you will be glad there are drones out there to mate with your new virgin queen.

      Drones don’t cause swarming, but the presence of drones signals swarm season has begun. A hive will swarm whether it has drones or not, but if there are no drones in the area, the original hive will die for lack of a fertilized queen.

      The lack of drones will not stop Varroa mites. They prefer drone brood, which is a good management tool, but if there are no drones the mites will go to worker brood. No problem.

  • I live in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. I’m new to beekeeping. I went in the hive a few days ago and plenty of bees but no sign of the queen laying. I did not see not one egg. Is the queen dead? What should I do?

  • I made a homemade swarm trap with a old flower pot and plywood. I bought a bottle of lemon grass oil from the health food store. Is this the right one? Also I’m in the US Virgin Islands, when is swarm season?

    • Kenny,

      Yes, the lemongrass oil should be fine. Swarms are most common during the early spring, but in a warm climate like yours, the season is probably quite long. I think you should ask a local beekeeper. A local person could give you much more specific information.

  • I recently made a trap-out on a tree trunk beehive. My bee box is still at the site. I believe I have the queen because the bees are already going back and forth carrying pollen. But also they found an escape hole in the three trunk and also having a lot of traffic there. Is it possible that I could have the queen and they could also have another queen in the tree trunk? Please help I’m just enjoying this new hobby.

    • Kenny,

      Sure. If young larvae were left behind, the bees could easily raise a queen. Of course, there would have to be drones flying in your area for her to mate. You should check your new hive to make sure you actually have a queen; it’s hard to get the queen in a trap-out.

  • Thanks Rusty. I still have my box at the site of the trap out. Lots of bees going in and out carrying pollen. What else should I do before taking it home? How would I know if I have the queen?

    • Kenny,

      If you see eggs or larvae you know you have a mated queen. If so, just seal up the hive and take it home.

  • Thanks Rusty. Now my newly found hive , the bees are soo aggressive I think it may be africanize bees. They are soo much more aggressive compare to any other hive I’ve seen. And the stings hurt soo much more. Now my question is. Should I take it home or should I just leave it in the woods. The area I keep my other bee hive is just about 100 feet from my house. Please reply . Thanks

    • Kenny,

      Do Africanized bees live in your area? Knowing that would help make a decision. But the sting of Africanized bees is no more potent than the sting of European honey bees; it’s just that more of them are likely to sting. One sting alone, shouldn’t be any different.

      There are other reasons that honey bees become aggressive, and queenlessness is one of them. Did you ever find a queen?

      Why don’t you leave them alone for now and wait to see if they calm down a bit. I think that’s what I would do unless they are in an area prone to vandalism.

  • Ha Rusty I enjoy reading every thing u write I would like to ask some questions that has always been on my mind. How does any one know how far a queen goes to mate how do they track her. what breed of bees do u have and how do u get them to build up the numbers for survival of winter some folks over winter in 2 brood boxes and a med on top some 1 brood box I know the bees only heat the cluster and not the complete hive how do u over winter your hives and thanks

    • Frances,

      Scientist use tiny tracking devices that are attached to the bee. At least that’s one way. I’m sure there are other ways, as well.

      My bees are mutts—no specific breed. In the last few years, I’ve overwintered in one brood box with one medium honey super.

  • Hi Rusty,

    As a first year beekeeper in NY, 2018 weather has been crazy. Super cold in the spring and super hot (90+) all summer, with frequent torrential rain. That said, I did not inspect as often as I should. They hung out bearding every night. Now in August, I have three medium boxes for brood and two mediums above a queen excluder. Yesterday when I opened the hive, the gang was aggressive, stinging me through my gear from the get go. I had sweat running in my eyes and my glasses slid off. Somehow in the middle of this I had the idea to mix up the brood boxes to have the less full one on top of the two full ones. I also put the filled honey super on the bottom (taking one frame for me) below the other less filled honey super.

    I blame the heat for thinking this was a good idea and now I wonder if I should change back the box order??? I worry that they hive won’t be ok for winter.

    Btw, one bee followed me and when I took my jacket off, I was stung at the base of my nose, woke up today looking like I had Botox lips!

    Thank you for your site. So much helpful information.


    • Lucy,

      The new configuration is fine, and there is lots of time between now (August) and cold weather to decide on a configuration for winter.

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