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What is a honey bee drone congregation area?

A drone congregation area (DCA) is a specific place where male honey bees gather and wait for young queens to visit. They are different from most mating areas because they are high above ground, suspended in air. All honey bee mating takes place in these areas—never on the ground or in the hive.

Drone congregation areas bring drones and queens together from a wide area, guarding against inbreeding. A comprehensive study in Germany found that a single DCA could contain drones from up to 240 different colonies. Another study found that a DCA could contain anywhere from several hundred to 30,000 drones. The large number assures that adequate gene mixing takes place.

Where to find a drone congregation area

Estimates vary, but most drone congregation areas are from 5 to 35 meters (16 to 115 feet) above the ground, and measure from 30 to 200 meters (100 to 650 feet) across. If you could dye the air where the drones are milling about, it would be shaped somewhat like a traffic cone, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top.

Oddly enough, drone congregation areas reappear in the same location year after year even though the drones live only a few weeks and the queens mate only in the first year. Something other than memory enables the newly hatched drones to find an established area. Some researchers think that certain geographical features or vegetation patterns may signal a favorable spot—one which gets selected over successive years. In addition, some think that a male pheromone may attract males to each other, allowing them to coalesce in large numbers.

Multiple drone congregation areas may be found wherever honey bee colonies exist. Drones may fly between these areas on established routes known as flyways. A drone can fly from one DCA to another, trying his luck in different locations. From below, an active DCA sounds something like a swarm.

How the system works

Drones become sexually mature about 10 to 12 days after emergence. During that time, the drones consume pollen and nectar, building their strength and their sperm reserves. Toward the end of the maturing process, the drones take occasional orientation flights in order to learn the location of their hives.

Once mature, mating flights begin. The drones choose sunny afternoons to make their flights, usually between 3 and 5 pm local time. If they are unsuccessful at mating, each flight will last about 10 to 40 minutes. Between flights, the drones return to their hive (or to one nearby) to rest and refuel before going out again. Time and weather permitting, the drones may take up to four flights per day.

Drones choose a congregation area that is relatively close to their own hive. But queens travel greater distances, perhaps 2 or 3 miles to a DCA. This is yet another way that young queens are kept from mating with their brothers.

The drone comet

As a receptive queen enters the congregation area, a comet-shaped gaggle of drones follows her, attracted by the scent of her pheromones. The comet may contain up to 100 hopeful drones.

The large compound eyes on the top of the drones’ head allow them to follow her every move. In true competitive fashion, the fastest and most agile drone is the first to mate. It takes but a moment, and the entire romantic interlude is over in 3 to 5 seconds. Unfortunately for him, the drone dies in the process.

The queen continues to mate and may repeat the process 12 or even 20 times during the next few minutes. You often read that drones are waiting for virgin queens but that is not actually correct. The fact that she’s no longer a virgin after the first mating does nothing to interfere with subsequent matings. The reproductive process will not cease due to a mere technicality.

A DCA is a honey bee thing

Honey bees are unusual in many respects, and their mating habits are no exception. Most all other bee species mate on the ground or in flowers. The males sometimes gather in groups called leks, but leks form on plants near the emerging female bees. In some other species, the males act alone, cruising the nesting area close to the ground while looking for a newly-emerged female.

In most species the males mate many times and the females mate only once. Often, mated females give off a pheromone that tell the male she’s already taken and that he should move on.

Although you would need special equipment to see a honey bee mate, you can often see other bee species mating if you are paying attention. Be quick with your camera, though. As in honey bees, it only takes a moment.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

A honey bee drone resting in the grass. His large eyes help him track young queens in the drone congregation area.
A honey bee drone resting in the grass. His large eyes help him track young queens in the drone congregation area. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Heather Wunderlich
Reply

How does the virgin queen know where these COAs are?

Rusty
Reply

What’s a COA?

Mary FT
Reply

Your repeated mention of possible inbreeding makes me wonder: I had thought that, especially in cold climates, it was a good idea not to keep bringing in new bees and queens each year from outside, but for local beekeepers to work together to keep the gene pool relatively small and adapted to the locale by sharing/trading/etc. Is that not necessarily so?

Thank you for your posts. I always enjoy reading them and learn lots as well.

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

I believe locally-adapted stock is the very best way to go. As you can see from the post, there are many systems in place that help the bees in a given area avoid inbreeding. You do not have to bring in bees to avoid it because the natural systems are already in place.

Mark Welsch
Reply

Thank you for such a wonderful article. It is very educational.

Lloyd Seested
Reply

Have you ever wondered why a particular hive seems to change temperament over a period of time. The queen might mate with 4-5-6 different drones. She may have up to 6 million sperm packed in her spermatheca, packed like little packets. 4-5-6 different genetic packets. So father number one’s children run the hose for awhile, then father #2 etc. so over the course of a year or three you will get different genetics at work. so don’t blame the queen for the hive behavior. It was the DCA. ??????????

Rusty
Reply

Lloyd,

The problem with that theory is that the sperm in the spermatheca is completely mixed, not separately into little packets. According to Susan Cobey (the queen of bee breeding) in The Hive and the Honey Bee, “The sperm stored in the queen’s spermatheca represents all the drones she mated with and is mixed completely, with less than 6% clumping.” Because it is completely mixed (except for that roughly 6%), the mix of bee genetics stays constant over time.

Granny Roberta in NW Connecticutt USA
Reply

Just to be argumentative:

But if I had a hundred dogs, and 94 of them were always placid and diligent and reasonably productive, but six of them were sometimes friendly and loyal but sometimes woke up every day determined to bite chunks out of their human, that MIGHT effect how I perceived the temperament of my dogs at different times.

Daniel Stacey
Reply

It amazes me as to how this takes place and I know that it is very true, I am a first year beekeeper and I had one of my hives supersede their queen. I let them raise their own and counted down the days till she emerged and counted down the days as to when she should be mated and laying. During this process I was fretting because I had very few drones in my two hives and as far as I know there is not another beekeeper for at least another 3 miles in my area so I ordered another mated queen just to be safe because the hive had already been queenless for around 25 days. When the new queen arrived I did a thorough inspection and found eggs but the queen that they had made was still a little small my first thought was she would be a drone layer but I decided to give her a chance so I would make a split in a nuc with a couple of frames of brood out of my strong hive with the new ordered queen and let the weak hive cap the brood and see if I had workers or drones. To my surprise they capped workers and that queen is now a nice big Italian and lays full frames and I gained a third hive in the process so Drones do congregate from somewhere.

Rusty
Reply

Daniel,

“As far as I know there is not another beekeeper for at least another 3 miles in my area.” But who knows what’s in that area? A circle with a three-mile radius covers 28.27 square miles or 18,093 acres. There could thousands of wild colonies in that area, and lots of people have bees and keep it secret. It is no surprise that your queen successfully mated.

Keith
Reply

Rusty,

How far will the virgin queens fly for mating? If some one wants to set up a open mating/breeding area what radius would you need to ensure genetic control in? Also do you know how much water the queen would cross? I am thinking an island would work unless the queens left for the mainland to mate and then come back. next idea would be, way north past where the bees normally winter, like the Yukon or something. Take the drone hives and mother hives up for July and Aug then bring it all back.

Seems with the migratory hives and the hobby hives it would be hard to have anything but “mixed” in the outcome. Now, no digs against any one here, I am merely trying to figure out what would be needed to successfully open mate and have “known” results, and have it be repeatable. As it is every year could be different depending on what the nearby folks ordered this year and who gets the contract for the orchard down the road etc. Even if it worked great one year how could you possibly repeat it?

thanks
Keith

Annie Myers
Reply

Hi Rusty,

A few years ago I started rearing my own queens with the goal of sustainability and locally adapted bees. With that I stopped the practice of culling drone brood for mite control and use 50% foundationless frames so the bees can make as many drones as they want. I find that my hives are much calmer when there are a lot of drones in them and they seem just as (if not more) productive. Do you have any thoughts on the effects of long practiced drone restriction and drone brood culling on genetic diversity?

Rusty
Reply

Annie,

I don’t know how much affect it has. There are so many drones out there from other colonies, both managed and wild, that I can’t image it would make a huge difference in genetic diversity. As far as the temperament of the hive, I can’t say. I have colonies on foundation and colones with no foundation and I’ve never noticed a difference, except for the number of drones.

Ray
Reply

If we are led to believe that finding lots of drone brood in a colony is one indicator of an impending swarm and that bees know how to avoid ‘inbreeding’ this suggests production of drone brood in any particular colony is actually done for the greater good of bees as a species! Awesome critters bees.

Great item as always Rusty. You take one distinct topic and deliver it in a complete but succinct way and make it enjoyable!

Rusty
Reply

Ray,

I agree with you: they are cool critters!

And thanks. I’m glad you find my site enjoyable.

Alice
Reply

Thanks for this, Rusty! I’ve been intrigued by drones and DCAs since you posted the drone quiz. I regularly get to see some flying back home late afternoon, but I have no idea where their area/s are. It boggles my mind that new drones can know each spring where the DCAs were in years past. Like Monarchs flying to Mexico.

You stated that drones become sexually mature 10-12 days after emergence. If they’re not lucky enough to get the girl (not sure how lucky it is to die), do they remain fertile and continue to fly to DCAs until they die of old age (or get kicked out of the hive in the fall)?

So many books on my list to read…now I’m adding __The Hive and the Honey Bee__.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Alice,

Yes, the drones keep trying until they die or get kicked out. It’s tough to be a drone, I think.

The Hive and the Honey Bee was our main textbook for the UM master beekeeping program. It’s got tons of information. I read it cover-to-cover for the class and I refer back to it often.

Joyce
Reply

I have a very old black walnut tree with a crack in one of the larger limbs. Four years ago I spotted honey bees flying in and out of the crack all summer long. Last year they only showed up part way through the summer. They have just shown up now, July 1. I live in southern Iowa. Might this be a DCA even though they are going in and out of the crack? The limb is alive but as it is an old tree it might be hollow. Do wild honey bees start and stop hives?

Rusty
Reply

Joyce,

It’s not a DCA because DCAs occur in the open air, not in trees or buildings. It sounds like a swarm just moved into your tree cavity. Swarms are highly attracted to places that were used by previous colonies. It sounds like the previous colony died partway through last summer. This year, a swarm found that same nesting place and decided to move in.

Liz Goldfarb
Reply

Greetings Rusty:
I enjoy your blog and I am delighted you are now writing for American Bee Journal. I especially liked the article on “organic” honey. As a PA beekeeper trying to behave “organically,” and who gets packages from Georgia, I am wondering if commercial suppliers of packages, nucs and queens, are routinely “treating” with chemicals. For example, some of the British bee sites talk about preventing outbreaks of EFB by administering maintenance antibiotics. Are there diseases routinely prevented in large commercial operations with chemicals that might have a lasting effect on bees received? How is a beekeeper to know what bees have been exposed to? Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Liz,

I think the only way to know is to ask. Beginning last year, prophylactic treatment of honey bees with antibiotics became illegal in the US, so I don’t suppose they are doing it. But if the package producer had an outbreak in his apiary and was able to get a prescription, his packages might be treated. I just don’t know. Just for the record, I haven’t heard of packages being treated for EFB, but I have heard of them being treated for mites.

Suzanne
Reply

Great information for me..a newbie…

Jeff
Reply

Hi Rusty –

Already in this north Georgia spring, my one hive has thrown two swarms. So, now I have three hives.

Today, I inspected my hives. The original (strong) hive had what I believe to be every drone in the county underneath it. I have been noticing a lot of drones, but I didn’t think much of it until today. I have vented bottoms with mite boards. When I pulled the mite board from underneath, the air filled with hundreds of drones. Since the hive is a bit “hot” the air also had upset workers – but that is another story.

BTW this hive survived the winter and came out swinging this spring. Can you tell me what you know about “Buckfast” bees? I ordered these from Texas (Weaver) last spring after my Carniolans didn’t survive wax moths, SHB infestations, and my first year beekeeping skills. Again, these Buckfast bees are not fun to keep. They are aggressive, but they are also robust.

As always, your input is my go to.
KR – Jeff

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

I had Buckfast bees from Weaver one year, and I couldn’t see any difference from my hives of Carniolans. So I don’t know.

Kevin Haupfear
Reply

I here a lot of discussing of drones in hives, don’t forget about other honey bees that swarmed and made a home in natural habitats such as a hollow tree.

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