What Is A Drone Bee? Appearance, Roles, & Benefits

A macro shot of a drone bee on a finger.

Worker bees work tirelessly to build and grow the hive, but drones play a crucial role within the colony.

This guide looks at the honey bee drone’s anatomy, its roles in the hive, and why it’s a pivotal part of the colony’s survival.

What is a drone bee? 

Drone bees are the male members of a hive whose primary purpose is mating with a virgin queen. Unlike worker bees, drones do not collect pollen, produce honey, or take part in most hive roles. They’re fatter than worker bees with bigger compound eyes and no stinger.

Drones usually die immediately after mating. The alternative for non-mating males is expulsion from the hive.

An illustrated comparison of a drone, worker, and queen bee.

Drone bee roles

  1. Mating: The drone’s primary function is to mate with a virgin queen to ensure the continuation of the bee colony.
  2. Genetic diversity: By passing on genes from different drones, male bees contribute to the genetic diversity of the hive.
  3. Temperature regulation: Drones also help with maintaining hive temperature. Their size makes them especially useful at heating the hive.

Anatomy of a drone

The drone can vary significantly in size, but they’re usually larger than worker bees and smaller than a queen.

They have big wings and well-developed flight muscles, allowing them to reach speeds of 22 miles/hour in the air. This feature helps chase the queen bee during mating.

A drone’s eyes are much bigger, making them easy for beekeepers to identify. Their over-sized eyes assist with spotting the queen bee and mid-flight mating.

A drone and worker honey bee side-by-side for comparison.

Beekeeping beginners may mistake the drone for the queen. They’re both usually bigger than worker bees, but the drone has a rounder head and rounder butt.

A drone and queen bee next to each other to compare.

A queen has much shorter wings and smaller compound eyes.

  • Drones have no stinger, and they can’t collect pollen.
  • They have an appendage tucked inside that sticks out during mating.
A top down view of a drone bee next to worker bees.
A drone had a rounded butt, long wings, and large eyes.

What is the role of a drone?

The primary role of a drone bee is to mate with a queen. They are a part of the hive in spring and summer, flying out often in search of the Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs). In this zone, drones wait high above ground for the queen to enter the DCA.

  • Outside the DCA, queens go unnoticed by drones.
  • Inside the DCA, she enters the drone’s radar, and mating is possible.

The queen will mate with multiple drones. There may be 12-20 drones that can mate with the queen. For a beehive to achieve genetic diversity, thousands of drones from hundreds of other hives also attempt to mate with the virgin queen. 

In addition to mating, a drone is useful for regulating hive temperature. They will flap their wings, along with the worker bees, to cool the inside of the hive.

The first appearance of drones in early spring offers a helpful warning to beekeepers. It’s a sign that swarm season is beginning and queens are looking to mate.

Macro photo of a drone bee isolated on a white background.

How drones are born

The queen and laying workers can produce drone eggs. A queen decides whether to lay fertilized eggs (drones) based on the size of the cell built by workers.

The size of a cell is a little larger for drones, and workers build these cells based on the hive’s needs.

When a drone egg hatches, the larva is fed royal jelly for 2-3 days. This sustenance provides an initial boost of protein to begin developing. After this time, drones receive a mixture of pollen and honey (bee bread).

The larva takes around 24 days to develop into a pupa and transform into a bee.

How to recognize a drone cell

Drone cells are usually built next to each other in one area, near the bottom of the frame. They are bigger than those built for worker bees.

Drones take longer to hatch, which appeals to predators like varroa mites. They have longer to feed on the food source and more time to reproduce.

Beekeepers should keep a close eye on drone cells, making sure they’re free from pests.

Top-down image of a male honey bee on white background.

Fun facts about drone bees

  • Drones need nurse workers for feeding.
  • All surviving drones are evicted when winter arrives.
  • Their average life expectancy is 55 days.
  • A drone has a grandfather, but no father.
  • Drones mate with the queen bee in the air while flying.
  • Drones can’t sting as they don’t have a stinger.

The mating process

Drones mate with a virgin queen in flight during a “mating flight.” The drone inseminates the queen by everting his endophallus, a reproductive organ used solely to transfer sperm. This act is fatal for the drone, as the endophallus and abdominal tissues rip from the body after mating.

The queen stores the sperm in her spermatheca and uses it to fertilize eggs throughout her life.

How do drones assist genetic diversity?

Drones play a crucial role in enhancing the genetic diversity within honey bee colonies. Since female bees (workers and queens) have 32 chromosomes and drones have only 16, sexual reproduction contributes to genetic variation.

  • Drones are haploid, carrying only a single set of chromosomes from the queen.
  • Female bees are diploid, inheriting one set of chromosomes from the queen and one from the drone’s sperm within the queen.

This setup allows for various genetic combinations among the offspring as queens mate with multiple drones. Genetic diversity is crucial for the health and resilience of the colony.

Drone bee flying with blurred background

Commonly asked questions

How many drones are in one beehive?

A beehive may have 10-15% drones in the colony during spring and summer. That means the hive could have hundreds to several thousand male bees.

Can a hive have too many drones?

A high proportion of drones may be a symptom of a queen laying unfertilized eggs. Beekeepers should check frames for excessive drone cells, and consider replacing the queen if necessary. 

Do drone bees swarm?

If a colony decides to swarm, drones will fly as part of it. The queen bee needs them to mate with, so no swarming takes place without them.

Do drone bees die after mating?

A drone’s reproductive organs are ripped off during the process of mating, resulting in death. Once winter arrives, any drones that mate are forced out of the hive by worker bees. They will soon die from hunger or cold weather.

How to recognize drone cells

A beekeeper will usually find drone cells towards the bottom of the frame. They are typically laid next to each other in a group and have a distinct bullet shape. Compared to worker cells, drone cells have a larger diameter, and the cap is more rounded.


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