Drones are awesome. Everyone should love them, but they have had a bad rap. Many believe that they are “lazy” and all they do is hang around eating stores and contributing nothing much to the hive. Then they leave for a leisurely flight at noon to try to have sex with a queen. They may return, but if they don’t, it could just mean that they decided to hang out in a different hive for a while. It could be that they had a mishap (eaten by a bird, swatted by some much larger creature or got old and died) or perhaps they did have sex. Sex for a drone is fatal for the individual but vital for the species. In bees, individuals are entirely subservient to the needs of the colony; a strategy that has served them well for millions of years.
When varroa mites came along in the 1990s, having jumped from their original host to a new bee species (ring any bells? – COVID-19), things got worse. Mites gravitate towards drone cells because they stay capped for longer, giving them more time to make more baby mites. This led to the idea of mechanical control against varroa. Beekeepers put drone comb or foundationless frames into the hive, the queen lays unfertilised eggs into the cells, and drone eggs become larvae and then pupae. The mites jump inside just before the bees cap the cells so that they can reproduce in safety, feeding off the developing bee. Once the drone comb is full of capped cells, the beekeeper removes it, destroys the developing drones, and puts it back so that the cycle can repeat. It kills a lot of mites, and a lot of drones, but who cares about drones anyway?
Bees seem to care a great deal about drones. In April, May and June, my bees love to make lots of them. I give them a frame of drone comb to help them out, but they still make drones wherever they can. Any space in the hive, such as the gap between upper and lower boxes, becomes a place for drone comb. The way I see it, if the bees love drones as much as they do, then we should respect that. However, the “drone trapping” method of controlling mites referred to above, is very effective and may reduce the need for chemical mite treatments. It’s a conundrum.
Here’s what Steve Taber said in his book “Breeding Super Bees” (written pre-varroa):
“One of the amazing aspects of having worked with bees and beekeepers for 40 years is my observation of the beekeepers’ hostile attitude toward drones and drone comb. It is an unusual publication that gives credit to drones in the hive other than that they are necessary to mate with queens. While this seems to be logical thinking, we must recognise that “human logic” and “bee logic” are not necessarily the same.”
He continues, “I have reconsidered my opinions about drones and consequently learned to recognise certain conditions in the hive that could be useful for beekeepers. I specifically use drones – both adult and immature – as the most important indicators of the nutritional status of a colony.“ He goes on to explain that the quality and quantity of pollen available to the colony will determine whether or not they make drones. When pollen is short, they stop making drones. A colony with drone eggs, larvae, pupae, immature bees and mature adults is one which is feeling great as pollen is abundant. When I see that, I feel great too.
I often talk about the importance to the beekeeper of good quality queens. Everything is easier with good queens. I’m getting my information from bee farmers, bee breeders and people who have worked bees for most of their lives. If they say good queens matter, I’ll take them at their word. But this is an important point; good queens cannot be made without good drones.
The best of Queens
How do you make the best of queens? For one thing, the conditions from egg to larva to pupa to the newly emerged queen are vitally important. The cell must be flooded with royal jelly right up until they seal it, which means nurse bees and good pollen must be plentiful. Great genetics indeed help, but great genetics plus poor nutrition do not make the best of queens. Once you have your gorgeous virgin queen, with amazing genes and abundant quality nutrition, you are only halfway there. Enter the humble drone.
To be a great queen, our virgin must mate with a lot of drones, maybe twenty of them, and those drones must possess lots of healthy sperm. Nature does her thing. The strongest drones have a better chance of mating than their less vigorous rivals. If the drone is firing blanks, or for some reason has defective sperm, then we are not going to get the best of queens. Our queen needs to pack her spermatheca with super healthy sperm so that she can lay fertilised eggs for years to come. Research is ongoing into the quality of sperm in drones and possible causes for it sometimes being below par.
There are many potential causes of below-par sperms in drones, and perhaps it is a combination of all of them. I understand that nutrition plays a role, as it so often does, as well as the environmental conditions and disease. I have not seen any problems with my queens, but some beekeepers believe that something untoward is going on. They have queens who are continually being superceded. Perhaps it has something to do with chemicals used in the hive to kill mites, or sprays used on fields, or traffic fumes or whatever.
My queens are good, they last a few years, and I keep mite numbers down with thymol & oxalic acid, or amitraz and oxalic acid. I shouldn’t comment on a problem that I don’t have; I didn’t have CCD either. It seems to me that my job is to ensure that my bees are as healthy and vigorous as possible, and if I do that right, the bees do the rest.