To a new beekeeper differentiating a drone from the queen can be a little confusing. I remember the first time we did a hive inspection with our first colony. It was after we not-so-gracefully dumped our package bees in the new, empty hive and sealed it up for two weeks hoping we did everything right. That two weeks seemed like forever! Waiting to see if the new colony had accepted their queen and liked their new home.
Being new to bee keeping, we didn’t know about other signs that signal that your queen has survived the initial installation. Things like the presence of eggs and brood. So we painstakingly removed each frame and scanned it until we found the queen among the worker bees.
Initially, we found several drones thinking they were the queen. After a while, we became confused and frustrated because to a novice beekeeper, a drone is large and queen-like.
Once we spotted her though, there was a striking difference.
Identifying a Drone
Drones can easily be distinguished from a worker bee but are often mistaken for the queen because of their large size.
The drone is a plump bee, they sort of remind me of a bumble bee. They also have large eyes, where the queen is more of a long, slender bee.
What role does the drone play in the hive?
Drones are the result of an unfertilized egg. In scientific terms they are considered a haploid, meaning they only have one set of chromosomes.
Drones do not collect nectar, forage for pollen or contribute to the daily inner workings of the hive. They live a somewhat easy life, benefiting from the worker bees who provide them with food and shelter.
While the life of a drone in the hive is pretty posh, most drones have a short lifespan and their death is a brutal business.
Drones will leave the hive and fly in mating swarms where they release pheromones as a group to attract queen bees looking to mate.
After mating with a queen, their barbed reproductive organ is ripped from the drone’s body resulting in death. (For more about the reproduction of bees, visit my post The Birds and the Bees of…Bees)
Drones who don’t die in mating are evicted from the hive in the fall and left to starve and freeze.
Why do Drones Equate Healthy Hive?
Drones are a sign of a successful hive. If the hive is healthy enough and producing enough food to accommodate free-loading drones, then you know you have a healthy hive.
Essentially you want the drone population to be around 15%.
Drones also ensure that your hive has genetic diversity, Which is important for helping to fight off diseases.
Drone larvae can also be cannibalized as bee food, providing essential proteins when pollen is in short supply.
What can bee keepers learn from the presence of drones in the hive?
If you do a hive inspection in the spring and see the presence of drones, this means that it’s swarming season.
This is the time when you need to start watching your hive for swarming activity. Drones mean that a new queens will be looking to mate and possibly take half the hive with her.