So what is the real lifespan of a drone? If you check beekeeping websites and blogs, you can find any number you want to believe. I uncovered dozens of estimates—everything from 10 days to six months—in just a few minutes of searching. So I left the web and tried books with well-known and well-informed authors instead. This is what I found.
First of all, drones that are successful at mating—the ones that get to pass their genes onto the next generation—live a much shorter life than those who have failed. Apparently, getting lucky has its drawbacks, at least in the honey bee world. It follows that an extraordinarily long life does not indicate strength and vitality; it only means the bee was no good at catching a woman.
Lifespan varies with activity
According to Caron & Connor in Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (2013), after emergence, drones must build up their strength by eating honey and bee bread for a week or more before they are ready to mate. Next comes orientation flights which will enable them to find their way home. Only after they are well-fed and well-oriented do they attempt mating flights. These flights are very short for the youngest drones but may increase up to about 40 minutes for older ones.
In The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), Stanley Schneider estimates that spring and summer drones live approximately 3–5 weeks. But he also points out that the longer-lived drones are the ones that failed to mate with a queen.
In The Biology of the Honey Bee (1987), Mark Winston estimates an average lifespan of 21–32 days during the spring and mid summer, but he also notes accounts of individual drones living 43 days in those seasons.
A paper by Fukuda and Ohtani, “Survival and life span of drone honeybees,” published in 1977 but still behind a paywall, reports that drones in late summer and fall when queens are scarce may live 90 days. It’s not only the act of mating that shortens a drone’s life, but also the heightened peril that accompanies multiple flights. Whether they are successful or not, drones that don’t risk their lives for love survive much longer than their more amorous counterparts. Apparently, if you stay home, sit on the porch, and eat well, your life expands before you.
Drones are on their own
I’ve always heard that drones must beg food from workers, but this method of feeding is actually limited. According to Winston, young drones stay near the center of the brood nest during the first few days of life where they are fed by nurse bees. As they mature, they move to the periphery of the nest where they feed themselves. During the maturation period, which lasts about 12 days, the drones spend their time resting, grooming, and eating.
All of these authors agree that life is cut short for the drones when the days become shorter. As winter approaches, the workers kick the drones out of the house where they die of cold or starvation. According to Fukuda and Ohtani, the eviction process may last many weeks or months. But they also state that “Colonies do not always throw their drones out;…populous colonies with substantial honey storage or those without queens may allow drones to remain through a summer dearth period or the winter months.”
This last statement makes sense because a queenless hive, which frequently develops laying workers, would have an abundance of late season drones and not enough workers to throw them out. It follows that the appearance of late season drones could possibly signal a problem, but not necessarily.
None of these references mentions drones that last throughout the winter. Unlike “winter bees”—those workers that develop fat bodies to help carry the colony through cold weather—long-lived drones seem to survive by chance. Without risking the dangers of the outside world, they survive by keeping safely out of harm’s way. And if the colony is large with plenty of stores, the workers may ignore them.
This life, relatively safe and quiet, is very different from the life of a summer drone. A drone in peak season may go on multiple mating flights per day, with only a few minutes in between for tanking up on fuel. After eating, the pre-flight checklist includes antenna and eye cleaning, all the better for finding those virgins.
In short, any activity performed outside the hive, regardless of whether it’s a queen, drone, or worker, is fraught with danger. Once tucked safely inside a healthy hive, chances for increased lifespan go up. Based on these accounts, it seems possible for a drone to live many months into the winter. But such a long life is nevertheless unlikely, and it appears to be more a result of happenstance than genetic predisposition.
Honey Bee Suite