bee biology swarming

Drones signal the onset of swarm season

I finally saw my first drone on Wednesday April 20. He made his appearance on the landing board of my busiest hive—just one day shy of a month later than last year. Although I went through the rest of my hives, he was the only fully-formed male I could find.

I did, however, find lots of drone comb filled with eggs, so I know the males are coming. Below is a piece of burr comb that had been built inside one of the feeders. It was built as drone comb—as burr comb frequently is—and each cell has a neatly placed haploid egg inside. Haploid honey bee eggs—those having only one set of chromosomes—are always destined to be male.

These signs tell me swarm season is just around the corner. Once the drones are in abundance, the mating frenzy will begin.


Drone comb filled with eggs.

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  • I am about to set up my first bee box. I am finding there sure is a lot to learn. It appears that I won’t be doing most of the work but the knowledge it takes for the behind the scenes sure makes up for the ‘labor’ that the bees will be doing.

  • Hi. Nice site, very useful to first year beekeepers like ourselves. You mention haploid eggs as if you can spot them by eye. Can you?

    • No, you cannot spot haploid eggs by sight, but you can see drone comb by sight. The cells are much larger than the cells built for the diploid worker bee eggs. The queen lays drone eggs in the larger drone cells so, by inference, you know they are haploid.

  • I’d like to ask an additional question on drones, if I may. It has been an odd year here in the English New Forest, but luckily the late summer weather has been very kind to the single colony we have which we obtained in July. Observing the hive entrance one sunny day in late September we were surprised to see a number of drones coming out, some ‘droning’ around doing orientating flights and some actually flying off and returning. And, though it’s almost November, with the odd overnight frost there is no obvious sign of drone eviction i.e no pushing at the entrance and no piles of dead bees. Any thoughts?

    • Now that’s weird. Drones should be gone by now. Both shortening day length and cooler temperatures signal the queen that she should stop laying drone eggs. I haven’t seen a drone for a month or more.

      Does anyone have any input on this?

      • I have four Langstroth hives. One is foundationless. Three are, I suppose you could call them, conventional hives with plastic foundation.

        The drones in all the hives began to get the boot a month or so ago. But in the past couple weeks I’ve noticed still plenty of drones coming out of the foundationless hive — and they’re not being pulled out like they were a month ago. They’re coming and going and the worker bees are leaving them alone.

        I’m not sure what’s going on.

  • I’m very new at this. It is November in San Diego, I’ve got a hive IN AN OWL BOX and I just got my first beehive box and a super. Do any of you have any idea what would be the best to transfer the original bee hive to the new box? Is there a simultaneous way to split the hive at this time or should I let them get into the new house and then wait for this winter and then split?

    If I see any signs of new queen larvae developing can I split now?

    And last . . . do I have to leave lots of honey comb and brood on the new box coming from the original box?
    I keep reading and studying as I’m assembling the box. Please if you know let me know . . .


  • Help! I live in Massachusettes. It’s getting colder here and the past week I have been discovering a bee (drone) buzzing around one of the lit lights in the house, at night. I’m sorry to say I’ve been zapping them with one of those electric fly swatters.

    Where are they coming from? Am I in danger of having my house over run (if that’s the appropriate term) with bees? What should I do?

    It’s raining today so I thought there wouldn’t be any but just got another one. It’s 11 pm.

    Is it possible there’s a queen some place between the floors of the house? Could they be getting in through a bathroom vent? Anyone else have this kind of experience?

    I surely appreciate any help.

    • Haly,

      Are you are sure they are drones? Drone honey bees are uncommon at this time of year, especially in a place as cold as Massachusetts. Also, honey bees are not normally attracted to light. Without actually seeing them, I’m guessing it is some type of fly you have, maybe even a drone fly. I doubt you are being overrun with bees. Give it a few days and a good hard freeze and my guess is they will be gone.

        • Danielle,

          When zombees were first discovered, one of the things the researchers noticed was that infected bees were hanging around a fluorescent light at night. This caught their attention because, normally, honey bees do not congregate around lights. This is because they (and most other bees as well) stay in their hives or nests at night. But once infected with the parasitic fly Apocephalus borealis, bees will abandon their hives at night and, once outside, they behave like other insects and fly toward a light source. The researchers at San Francisco State nicknamed this the “Flight of the Living Dead” since these bees would soon die and never return to their hives.

          That’s not to say that healthy honey bees will never go to a light source. If they are outside of their hive in the dark for some reason, they may indeed cluster around a light. Why would they be outside? Sometimes they go out in response to a disturbance or maybe a predator, it could even be a swarm spending the night outdoors, but there is some compelling reason why they are outside of their hive. If honey bees just flew out of their hives in response to light, it would be impossible to keep bees in the cities or suburbs without locking them up at night. And as you know, that is not the case.

          Did you ever get your ant problem under control? That sounded like a mess.

  • I thought Danielle was making a joke with her “aren’t they zombies” remark. Even got a chuckle. I had not heard of the Apocephalus borealis. Interesting stuff.

  • It’s late July here in southern Ontario. I have been noticing that there are a few drones on the landing board. Is this normal for a newly established hive with 2 brood boxes and a super?

    • Sandy,

      Yes, that’s normal. Drones come and go during the day to search for virgin queens, so it is not unusual to see them on the landing board. Also, they start getting expelled from hives when the nectar dearth starts up. Late July, early August is not uncommon.

  • Being my first feral hive that I captured and my first hive of any kind we have survived the winter here in West Texas. I have been feeding sugar water and patties all winter, survived two robber bee attacks within last two weeks and finally left robber screen on, no more robbing. I saw my first drones yesterday, none today. Is this normal for drones to show up and then disappear? Would the wind cause them not to come out? Need rain for more flowers !!!!!!!!

    Thank you for all the info


    • Asa,

      Unlike workers, drones frequently go from hive to hive so it may look like the are appearing and disappearing.

  • Hi Rusty,

    What are the indications of the hive is about to swarm from outside the hive? My bees are busy but they are bringing pollen. I saw maybe five drones.

    Mmy second question, are drones bad sign? Or is it normal to have few drones around the hive?

    Last but not least, if my hive does not swarm, which means the queen is strong and they have plenty of room to grow. Am I right?

    • Harry,

      Tell me, are men a bad sign? You probably don’t think so! Whenever you have two sexes, you need both for life to carry on, so drones are a vital part of the process. Colonies raised on preformed foundation usually have about 15-17 percent drones (or so I’ve read) and the number goes much higher, maybe 25%, if you are letting the bees build natural cells. So yes, it is very normal to have drones around. Something would be wrong if you didn’t.

      Your last question is harder to answer. From nature’s point of view, swarming is a very good thing. It is colony reproduction and it is necessary for bees if they are to survive without intervention from mankind. Only strong and healthy colonies can swarm. If a colony has no inclination to swarm it may be a sign that it is not healthy and strong.

      From a beekeeper’s perspective though, we don’t want our colonies to swarm because we don’t want to lose all those bees and we don’t want the swarms to bother the neighbors, so what is good for the bees is bad for the beekeeper. A good beekeeper tries to manage swarming all the while knowing that the strongest and healthiest colonies are the ones that want to swarm.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Saw my first drone yesterday. It’s the middle of March, in central Ohio. So, I’ll be putting my swarm traps up, in the next few days. I may even catch my own! Too cold today to open my hive to check for queen cells. Maybe this weekend.

    • Al,

      I haven’t seen any drones yet, but I found two mason bees last weekend. Spring is coming. Your comment caused me to put swarm traps on my list of things to do. Thanks.

  • I have three hives in the piedmont of NC that survived our past winter and are doing very well! However, I have not seen any drones in any of my hives at this point (it’s the middle of May). Only one hive had drone comb. Is this normal? I feel like in past years I saw lots of drones in my hives by this time in the year. What could be going on?

    • Amanda,

      I don’t know why you don’t see drones, but I wouldn’t worry about. There time will come.

  • I just got a nuc a week ago today (middle of May, in Illinois). They not once took any of they pollen powder or sugar water. I have been watching them come and go, but never see any pollen in their pollen sacks. Today I just witnessed a drone pop out and fly off. I’m wondering, is the queen dead and they are moving? I have a 3 lb package coming for a second hive on Wednesday, so also wondering if they ARE leaving, would they instead move into the new hive with a queen for sure and abandon their move away, or would they be stuck on moving to the previous site they are moving to already. Thanks for any advice, I am new and trying to figure out what’s going on.

    • Corey,

      What makes you think that the bees are getting ready to fly off? And what about a drone flying out upsets you? Your concern is not clear to me.

      Also, if other things are available, your bees are likely not interested in sugar or pollen powder—that is not surprising.

  • Do bees reconfigure cell size in order for the queen to lay what the hive needs hatched? Or if there is a ton of drone cells will she lay a ton of drone? My queen is laying workers and drones, but the hive already had comb in it and there seem to be a lot of drones.
    Thank you.

    • Kim,

      Remember that the number of drones is variable throughout the year. During swarm season, they will be at their maximum number.

  • Related question to the last one answered on this thread. Which comes first, the drone cell, or the drone egg? That is, do the workers lay out a bunch of oversized cells, and the queen obligingly lays drones in them? Or do drone eggs have a distinguishing feature that the workers can detect, so that when she lays a drone egg, the workers obligingly enlarge the cell to the living space that the gentleman will require?

    My hive is on foundation, so I know my workers have to work around this the best they can. There are nice neat clumps and rows of capped drones near the bottoms of several frames, spilling over into burr comb ON the bottoms of those frames. I figure this supports theory one. However, I also have spots on several frames, where a single oversize capped cell is all alone in the middle of normal brood. While it’s still possible for the workers to do something random, this more likely supports theory two. Do you know?

    • Generally, the workers construct brood cells on the sides or the bottom of frames. If you use drone foundation, they will put all the drones there, so theory one is correct.

      A drone laid in the workers cells is often the result of a laying worker. This is no big deal as every colony has a certain number of them. I’ve read that these random drones are actually a positive thing for the genetics of the colony. As long as the colony remains queenright, a certain number of laying workers come and go without incident.

  • Perusing my hives this afternoon on the best cloudless day I’ve seen so far this year; a balmy 58F, the bees were flying like crazy and bringing in plenty of pollen. As I stooped to see what the incoming workers at one double-deep hive were bringing back, I had to blink a couple of times and watch some more – thought I just saw a drone come in! That was confirmed in the next few minutes as several more drones appeared to be returning from a spin around the block. Seems awful early to me, but maybe not. I’ll be watching this colony closely and dig in there on another 60-ish day as soon as it happens.

    • Cal,

      With this warmish weather, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some drones. I will take a look today.

  • It’s the first week of September. The weather is still nice. I split my hive last May. I now see a lot of drones in the grass. Will they swarm this late? Should I split both hives now? This late? I leave lots of pollen and honey for them over winter.