It’s that lovely time of the year when fathers all over are celebrated for bad jokes, rocking dad bods and unconditional love for their children. Introducing the Drone…
The hive’s male honey bees are known as drone bees. Drone bees only have one main objective and it’s not to look after the kids so Mama can take a well-earned break, but it is to spread their DNA from their colony far and wide. The only reason drone bees exist is to mate with queens from other hives and … well, that’s literally it, there’s no fixing the kitchen sink or opening jars. However this is in fact crucial because the only way for a colony to guarantee the survival of its genetic material is for a drone to successfully mate with the queen of another colony. Unfortunately, they are simply unable to exercise their judgement, make plans for the future, or interact with their own children.
A queen bee contains within her body many eggs and sperm. She can decide when to use the sperm and eggs because they are kept in separate body compartments. Drones are haploid, which means they only have one set of DNA from the queen, and they are born from unfertilized eggs. The queen opens both chambers and places fertilized eggs when she needs more female bees, known as the worker bees, in the hive. Technically drones don’t have a father but they do have a grandfather due to the queen having being made with both eggs and sperm. How crazy is that!
Honey bees develop from their eggs into small C-shaped worm-like larvae, pupa, and then eventually into adult bees. There is one honey bee larva in each hexagon cell. Larvae need to be prepared to pupate, so the worker bees gather both pollen and nectar from flowers to feed to the larvae and other members of the colony. When the larvae are prepared to pupate, worker bees close the top of the brood cell and allow the transformation to take place in a segregated space. The seals on the brood cells of drone pupa are raised slightly beyond the top of the honeycomb because they are larger than worker pupa. Drone cells are the name for these brood cells. Drone bees eagerly emerge from their sealed-off brood cells as fully-fledged adult drones when spring arrives.
The drone bees are generally useless to the hive (feel free to draw comparisons to human households now). In fact, they frequently rely on female worker bees to bring them food so they don’t go hungry. They are also groomed and protected by their wonderful loving sisters. These drones will then turn on lazy mode and hibernate for around 12 days while they conserve energy and allow their reproductive organs to grow. The drones are ready to mate once they have adjusted to their new adult bodies and gained some weight. A drone bee lives for about 20 days on average, but can live for up to 60 days on rare occasions but with the lack of work around the hive, I’m more than surprised that they can make it past day one.
Now that our lazy drone has been waited on hand, foot and stinger (of which they don’t even have!), they are ready to leave the hive looking their best to find a virgin queen. During mating season, over 25,000 potential fathers from up to 200 distinct colonies will congregate anywhere up to 40 metres in the air. When the virgin queen departs on her nuptial flight, which is only around 30 minutes long, her adoring admirers are prepared to embrace her. The sight (drones have large eyes) and smell of the queen drive these boys completely insane, and the race is on to be the first to get to her. Only the fastest drones (approximately 1 in 1000) will be able to mate with the queen.
In order to ensure genetic diversity in her progeny, it is crucial that the queen mates with as many drone bees as she can. In actuality, her colony’s survival depends on it. A queen can mate with up to 20 drones before declaring herself suitably inseminated for the remainder of her life. She’ll then return to her hive, never to see the outside again…well unless she swarms but that’s another story.
You’ve got to give some credit to the drone honeybee. He can’t make honeycomb, collect nectar, clean, cook or look after the kids but he can fly around and get a queen pregnant. That’s fairly astounding in my books, and it’s the possible reason why drone honey bees have some of the largest genitalia in proportion to body size in the whole of the animal kingdom. Only a few of our ‘lucky’ drone bees successfully mate with a queen. Do they get to brag about being in the top 0.01%? The short answer is no.
A worker bee is any honey bee that stings. When worker bees sting, the stinger is barbed and stays in whatever they have stung and as a result, their abdomen ruptures to release the stinger. This is what kills them, but what makes me want to include this information here exactly?… Well, drone bees lack stingers. They have penises instead. A “beenis” if you will. The ejaculation of a drone bee is so forceful that you can hear an audible “bang” as his sperm is pushed into the queen’s sting chamber. The drone bee contracts his abdomen so hard that he may inflate his endophallus (the beenis) with this pressure. The drone bee becomes paralysed as he ejaculates and performs somersaults to the ground. Quite the spectacle and award-winning performance.
Life can be brutal sometimes, one day you are being looked after like a prince to enter a world of natural beauty waiting for the love of your life to procreate with you, next you are able to perform for all of 5 seconds and the force of the act of love is so strong it that it rips your beenis off (like the stinger of a worker bee) and you flip flop to the floor with a massive smile… and die. WOW.
But what happens if you survive by accidentally failing at your only mission? …
The drones may be lucky enough to try again. They will return to the hive once again to be the pain of their sisters’ lives. Needing to be groomed and refuelled with food sources, these princes are well looked after once more. They will continue to try and mate with any remaining queens in the outside world looking their best courteous of their loving sisters. Drones that are lucky/unlucky enough to have mated with a queen and perish distant from the hive do far better than those who live until the end of autumn. When the temperature drops sufficiently in the autumn, the queen instructs her daughters (worker bees) to remove all of their useless brothers (drones) from the hive. During the winter, no bees mate, yet the sole objective of a drone bee is to mate. UH OH! As a result, the drones serve no purpose throughout the winter. Why would the workers want to waste their valuable resources feeding their privileged brothers? Time for some sweet revenge.
First, they will refuse to feed the drones, weakening them significantly. Second, they bite off the lazy brother’s wings “mwahahahaha” and finally they toss them out of the hive to die of either starvation or the cold. Even drone larvae have offended the worker by their sheer existence and are destroyed and disposed of. Take another look at the image at the top, it is an action shot of worker bees kicking out the drones in the autumn. There are dead adult drones on the floor that have been kicked out and perished already and the worker in the picture has started removing drone pupa and flying them out of the hive, kicking them out too.
Bye bye boys, see you next year.
This concludes the story of the drone, the fatherless fathers, and the penis-popping privileged princes. Happy Father’s day.
One last thing …
What do bees take with them when they go bird-watching?
(Couldn’t resist putting in a dad joke)
Blog written by Dave Toms, Education Team, Quince Honey Farm