honey bee management

Drowning in drones

Several beekeepers with foundationless frames have reported finding large number of drone cells in their hives. In some cases, the new brood is 25% to 50% drones.

While colonies on foundationless frames always have more drones than those on preformed foundation, the number of drones can seem out of hand. And indeed, vast amounts of hive resources are going to raising these bees who give nothing in return. Instead of having workers out there collecting honey and raising more workers, you have hundreds of drones lazing around, waiting to be fed.

The first thing you should do is make sure the queen is laying at least some worker brood. If so, the queen is probably fine. If you see no worker brood—or at least none in a clear pattern—you may have an infertile queen that needs to be replaced. Although not frequent, it does happen from time to time.

If you think the queen is okay, you can try moving the drone brood to the outside of the brood nest and inserting new frames near the center of the nest. It is usually best not to remove the drone frames completely (unless you are doing it for mite control) because the colony will just expend more energy in an effort to replace it.

One thing to remember is that most drone brood is raised in early spring just before and during swarm season. It should taper off after that. You may just have to be patient for a few weeks. As the season progresses you should see a greater and greater percentage of worker brood.

Some beekeepers use a queen excluder just about the hive entrance to keep the drones from returning to the hive where they take up space and use resources. The problem with this is that newly hatching drones are unable to leave, so it is necessary to remove the queen excluder every few days to allow the newly­-hatched drones to exit.

Another thing you can try is using a pre-stamped piece of wax foundation as a starter strip to encourage worker-sized cells. If you have a proper saw, you can even cut starter strips from plastic foundation.

Remember, there are many reasons that beekeepers developed pre-stamped foundation. One of them was to keep down the number of drones. If you go foundationless, you will always be faced with a higher proportion of drones and a lower yield of honey than a beekeeper using patterned foundation. Every method has its pros and cons.



  • “The first thing you should do is make sure the queen is laying at least some worker brood. If so, the queen is probably fine.”

    I found a single frame of well laid capped worker brood in the middle of the top box recently — on plastic foundation. Then five frames of drones — on foundationless frames. The other frames were full of honey and pollen.

    “If you think the queen is okay, you can try moving the drone brood to the outside of the brood nest and inserting new frames near the center of the nest.”

    By outside the brood nest, do you mean the edge of the brood nest or the edge of the box?

    “One thing to remember is that most drone brood is raised in early spring just before and during swarm season. It should taper off after that.”

    I hope so. I got talked into going foundationless almost immediately after I got into beekeeping last year, mainly because I love the look of natural comb and I don’t want to get into extracting, and I was led to believe foundationless is better for the bees. But I’m in it for the honey too. I’ve put a lot of work into caring for my bees. I want to get paid and I don’t want the drones eating up my pay cheque.

    “You may just have to be patient for a few weeks. As the season progresses you should see a greater and greater percentage of worker brood.”

    Our season is so short in Newfoundland, I’m concerned that if all the foundationless frames continue to produce drones, there won’t be enough bees to raise worker brood and produce honey of any significant amount. I was told on the beesource.com forums that drone comb will be back-filled with honey after the drones emerge, and then everything will balance itself out. I’ll have to watch and see. Going foundationless is certainly a learning experience.

    “Another thing you can try is using a pre-stamped piece of wax foundation as a starter strip to encourage worker-sized cells. If you have a proper saw, you can even cut starter strips from plastic foundation.”

    Hmm. Does this work? I have plenty of plastic foundation I can cut into starter strips. It doesn’t matter to me if the top 3 inches of the frames in the brood boxes are plastic foundation. I have no intentions ever cutting out comb from the brood chamber.

    I was also told by some beeks at beesource.com that placing an empty frame between frames of worker brood will produce another frame of worker brood. The basic hypothesis is that whatever an empty frame is surrounded by, that’s what the bees will build on the frame.

    • “The basic hypothesis is that whatever an empty frame is surrounded by, that’s what the bees will build on the frame.”

      That may be true, but the bees weren’t surrounded by drone comb when they decided to build drone comb–they were just empty frames. Still, it’s worth a try.

  • Letting the bees do whatever they want to do might be worth a try too, as long as the queen has room to lay.

    I have two nucs on order for this summer. I’m tempted to experiment with them. One hive all plastic foundation. The other all foundationless from the start (instead of the mixed up hives I have now).

  • I got word from a well-known foundationless Langstroth beekeeper informing me that all the drone-prevention methods are pretty much bunk. The bees will build worker brood after they’ve met their quota of drones, and that’s it. The old drone comb will be backfilled with honey or torn down and rebuilt into worker brood. In others words, the bees know what they’re doing better than I do. I might move drone comb away from the direct centre of the brood nest. But other than that, I’ll let the bees work it out, which often seems to be the best policy. Not always, but often.

    • Like I said above, “You may just have to be patient for a few weeks. As the season progresses you should see a greater and greater percentage of worker brood.”

      Bees will be bees.

  • I didn’t believe you the first time. And I wanted to clarify that all my theories from my first comment are wrong. I look forward to seeing how everything balances out in the hive in the coming weeks.

  • No way, man, I have faith in my bees. (They better not mess it up.)

    I’ve got a full inspection of both hives scheduled for Sunday. The camera will be rolling. It should be interesting.

    I should probably feed them since they’re putting so many resources into producing drones. Maybe a little sugar boost will get them over the hump.

    Anyway, I’m keeping the faith.

  • I have exactly the situation you describe in this post… lots of drones and drone cells and a spattering of worker brood. This is on a new package with an Italian queen that I installed a month ago (I’m a newbee). The only difference is that I’ve found some swarm cells on the bottom of one bar of drones.

    I’m requeening (I may not have chosen to do this, had I found and read your post first 🙂 ), as I’ve already purchased a mated queen. Hopefully this doesn’t set the colony back too far.

    Any thoughts on the swarm cells? I know it’s speculation, but does it sound more like I had a poorly mated queen to begin with, or did I jump the gun on taking action…

    Thanks for all of your posts, lots of knowledge to be gained here!

    • Adrean,

      It sounds like they are getting ready to swarm. Are there lots of worker bees or just drones? A month isn’t very long, though. Are you sure they are swarm cells and not supersedure cells?

      • Thanks for the reply!

        Not 100% sure, but the cells were hanging off the very bottom of the drone comb, so I assumed. I also thought there wouldn’t be enough workers to make a successful swarm and have worried that this colony is going to be really weak or gone soon.

        I ended up finding 2 Queens in the hive, the original marked queen and a new smaller unmarked one. I offed the unmarked queen yesterday, then happened across the marked queen today. Instead of killing her, I moved her and a bar w/ good brood and a bar with new comb and some eggs to a nuc. I’d like to prove that she is not laying right before I am rid of her. I also was thinking that if the hive was trying to swarm, this action may have helped with that…?

        I ‘think’ the hive is queen-less now, aside for my new caged queen. I hope to re-queen with her this week… not sure if I should expect to see more swarm or supercedure cells now…?

        If it sounds like I’ve made some poor choices in handling this, I’d love to hear about it. I’m looking back now and wishing that I’d not gotten rid of the unmarked queen; and thinking that I am preemptively queen-rich with the caged queen. I feel a little like I’m flying by the seat of my pants!


        • Adrean,

          One thing to consider is that drones are most prolific in the spring when mating is going on. Secondly, you will always have more drones in a hive that doesn’t use foundation, such a top-bar hive. Whether or not they were going to swarm or supersede the queen is hard to say, but once you killed the virgin, it changes the dynamic. Don’t be so worried about the number of drones: they are an essential part of the process.

          Do you have a second hive or a nuc? You could use the old queen to start another colony.

          • Thanks Rusty!

            I actually ended up doing just that. I have a nuc retrofit to take a Boardman feeder, so I pulled some mixed capped brood and a new comb with some eggs and a little honey into it with the old queen. Hopefully she’ll prove to be a perfectly good queen and I’ll have 3 hives this year that make a strong start into winter.

            I’ll be uncorking my new queen’s cage today. We’ll see how this progresses, and I’ll be a little more careful about reading up on what I’m seeing before making snap decisions.

            Thanks again!

  • Sorry… forgot to answer a question.

    I would guess that I was seeing 60% to 40% worker to drone. This is a top bar hive with only about 6 bars of full comb built. Not a whole bunch of bees in total.

  • Hey Rusty!

    I did my first real hive inspection today. Finally got up to 70+ degrees. Everything seems to be going good. I didn’t use smoke or anything since they don’t have honey yet and didn’t want them to eat what nectar they had gotten. It went well without it. In my excitement i didn’t look too closely though but took a few of photos.

    They are building comb on four top bars. Two bars are almost fully drawn out. Two are just starting. It is yellow?! Like the color of turmeric. (Could it be yellow pollen getting on the wax?) Not white like I have seen on so many videos. The comb was full of nectar with a little bit of pollen. Didn’t notice brood, but we weren’t moving bees out of the way either.

    Anywho. Started looking at the photos and it seems we have drones already? We are not bee identity experts but boy they have big eyes. Now we fear our queen died or is not fertile. Anything we should look for? I was thinking of waiting a week to check on them again.

    Thanks in advance,


    • Raul,

      Vibrant yellow wax is not unusual. Some years I get it, some not. I think it has to do with both pollen and diet. Not to worry.

      Yes, drones have big eyes that seem to meet in the middle of their head. All the better for finding women. Since your bees are building natural comb, you will have lots and lots of drones. Maybe 25-30%, if I recall. What you need to look for is some worker brood. My guess is that your queen is fine, but next inspection, just look for worker brood. It will appear almost flat across the top surface, not bumpy like drone brood.

      • I did read that in your previous posts. We were just worried maybe the queen had died and a worker started laying. My wife read about them doing this.

        Next hive inspection in a couple days!

  • Have you ever seen a hive build drone comb perpendicular and between 2 frames on a foundation frame? I tried my best to make sure there was no gap between the 2 frames. I wonder if they are doing this because the cell size is more for workers?

  • Hi Rusty, et al.

    New hive this year, Box ‘o Bees rcv’d in April. Italianos.

    3rd time Beekeeper (1st time at 10 years old, kudos to 4H; swarm ended that round!) Bears ended my 2nd round by destroying our three colonies in Oregon.

    Opened our hive today (Aug 20th) for some infrastructure work, after six weeks or more left alone as they were going strong (and still are). I see pollen coming in, but bees are not ‘plump’ with nectar, though I know they have some good oregano and other sources flowering right now. Not a dearth, but likely reduced nectar flows.

    I have two deeps with wax foundation, then a queen excluder, then a recently added medium honey super with wax foundation. The top deep is chock full of nectar/honey, except the outermost frames, which only have some work on the inside half. The medium super has zero activity (placed in mid-July when I noticed the 2nd deep was nearly full).

    What I noticed today were LOTS of capped drone cells scattered all over the brood box, or boxes. I had noticed for the last month there were a lot of drones around (noisy), and some being ejected by workers. The drone ‘surplus’ is new since early July when I was last in the hive.

    However, I see a reasonable amount of worker larvae and nicely patterned brood throughout frames with pollen & larvae; didn’t see eggs, but it’s been kinda overcast, and I had on my sunglasses rather than my Rx glasses, so my vision wasn’t reliable for egg-sighting today. I am thinking the queen is ok, or was at least about nine days ago(?), since I have worker brood (larvae in worker-depth cells).

    I did not spot the queen, looked casually, but I usually don’t go hunting for her anyways because it’d keep the hive open too long, and everything looks healthy, leave good enough alone I say. No supersedure cells anywhere today, as I went through entire hive. All the drone cells are perpendicular to foundation.

    I follow the logic in this thread ok, but my queen seems ok, I have foundation’d frames, and still lots of drones? Maybe not enough worker larvae & their pheromone present?

    Will have to put on my glasses and confirm presence of eggs in a week or so. Don’t know if I have a problem or not, but concerned.

    Rosso in N. CA

  • Rusty,

    I have been patiently waiting for my bees to fill my Flow Hive frames but the closest they have come is filling the void from the QE to the bottom of the FH frames with beautiful free form comb packed with honey. This space includes an Imirie shim. I had to tear all that out and since then there has been less and less activity with that hive. They have yet to fill the first FH cell with a drop of precious nectar. Today I decided to go through the brood box and much to my dismay although all 10 frames were covered with bees at least half if not more are drones. I counted six opened queen cups with either the cap hanging down or the cup half eaten away. I found no eggs and no larvae. One frame had decent capped brood and other than that there was some scattered brood which was about half drone brood. The remainder of cells were either filled with nectar or capped honey. By far mostly nectar. I’ve never seen that many drones. There is also a capped queen cell. I did find a very large queen and it is not the queen that was there in the early spring which is OK cause I didn’t like that queen anyway. Any thoughts?

  • I have a long hive that kept putting burr comb to the slatted rack. Massively irritating. I was told going foundationless would help reduce this tendency. I made up multiple wired foundationless frames with wax starter strips and this spring incorporated them into the hive.

    The bees were covering perhaps 20 frames. I interspersed 7 foundationless, keeping the main brood area together.

    They made 7 frames of drones. Jeez. The hive sounded like a Mac truck. I was able to find normal worker eggs and brood…one egg per cell…but this queen was 3 years old so when I found her I pinched her and installed a bought queen.

    From advice in this column, I moved all the drone frames to the outside of all the brood frames.
    Since then I have seen drone Armageddon. In the evenings they come home and I don’t think the home bees are letting them in. I thought it was robbing until I saw the PILES of drones. 4-5 days of this. Picking through the piles I see almost exclusively drone dead. My last hive inspection was more normal…more workers than drones and the new queen laying. They are filling the drone comb with nectar and I saw a tiny bit of capped honey.

    I was very disappointed to spend all that time wiring frames only to have drone comb. As bees do…they seem to be fixing “my” problem? It has been more than 10 days and no burr comb to the bottom…maybe it was meant to be.

    • Carol,

      That’s interesting. I’m not surprised bees built drone comb, after all, that’s their nature, and it’s the reason foundation is so popular. But killing all those drones? Hmm. It doesn’t seem the right time of year to kill all the drones you just raised. But it sounds like things are working out.

  • Yes, I thought it was robbing going on in the evenings at first, clumps of bees dropping off the face of the hive, but the dead drones kept piling up, even my non-beekeeper husband noticed the pile of dead bees and asked what’s up. The drones also died noticeably more outside my other two hives. I think they wanted in?

    Seriously, they were outta control. I’m wondering if the new queen’s pheromones put a shut down on the poor guys. They ate ALL the two frames of overwintered honey. For a while, I could not find workers and only small patches of normal eggs and young brood. Thought I had laying workers etc.

    I’ll be interested to see what they look like this week..the dead have stopped.

    • Adam,

      That would be hard to do since the workers often kill them either before or right after they emerge. Why do you want more?

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