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.
Honey Bee Suite