Beekeeping basics, PennState Extension, 2007
First Lesson in Beekeeping, Dadant & Sons Inc., 1980
Insectopedia, Hugh Raffles, 2010
In the social order of honeybee hives, drones are the males. They are in the minority, only a few hundred drones among the average 60,000 population in a single colony. Their job is the fertilization of the new queens. That’s it. Flying around at altitudes of 40-200 feet, the drones look for and fertilize the virgin queen bees. Ideally, the drones are finding queens from other colonies and thus increasing the genetic diversity.
Compared to the female worker bee, the drone’s work is limited. The female worker bee is born and begins to clean cells of the hive. Her jobs progress as she ages, taking up nine different jobs until finally in her last stage she graduates to the role of forager. As a forager she goes out into the hill and vale to collect nectar and pollen. While her life includes a chronological progression of jobs, the male drone has a life of singular focus seen in his anatomy: no stinger, no pollen baskets, and no wax glands.
The mystery is that although the drone seems to make a singular contribution to the colony, their role is vital. In the visual survey of ‘things that mark a healthy colony’ the beekeeper is looking for the presence of drone cells. The mystery deepens, drones take the longest to mature: 24 days. Comparatively, the queens have a developmental period of 21 days and worker bees take 16 days to reach maturity.
So how do drones discover their job? What reminds them of their purpose? What has been observed by the German scientist, Karl von Frisch, is that queens emit pheromones that attracts the drones to herself. Thus when a virgin queen takes her maiden flight outside of the hive, she draws a cloud of drones to herself. Her pheromones are also emitted within the hive and have a calming affect on the whole colony, to regulate their activity. The workers are drawn to her, to feed her, to facilitate her job of laying eggs. Frisch also noted that when the queen is in the hive with other drones, they are not attracted to her.
In the Spring, when the nectar flow begins and while it holds, the colony is in the mode for swarming. The drone population increases in anticipation of this event. Swarming is a reaction of the colony to cramped quarters. This season includes the creation of new queens. About 60% of the colony population leaves the hive with the queens and searches for new hive.
In the Fall, after the nectar flow has stopped, the drones days are numbered. This time of year is a time of vulnerability for the colony. So in preparation to live on a limited food supply, the workers drag the drones from the hive and if they do not leave the hive willing they will be stung to death.
About the painting:
Visually the drones are larger than the female workers. Their eyes are anatomically larger, wrapping up and around their heads. In this drawing, I made a study of drone anatomy. There are three charcoal studies to the left: from the front, from the back and the right profile. At the bottom, there is an investigative color study. Finally, there is a full color watercolor painting of the drone. All of this work was made from one of drones from my hive. I found him one day, perched motionless on the hive stand. He was dead.