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What Is A Drone Congregation Area?

Top down shot of countryside and a target showing a Drone Congregation Area

At the start of a queen bee’s life, she sets off in search of male honey bees (drones) to mate with. This is a one-time event that should allow her to lay fertilized eggs for the duration of her life. But the queen’s hunt for mating partners isn’t random; instead, she visits zones known as Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs). In this guide, we’ll look at the mechanics of a DCA and how it works.    

 

What’s a DCA?

A drone congregation zone is an area high above the ground where drones wait for the chance to mate with visiting virgin queens. To ensure adequate gene mixing, these areas may contain tens of thousands of drones from hundreds of different colonies.

Honey bee experts (apiologists) aren’t sure how DCA boundaries are set up. Some studies point towards pheromones playing a role while other researchers believe environmental signals are important. One fact that’s agreed on, is that drones can’t be using their memory to find DCAs as their lifespan is usually a few weeks at most.

How big is a drone congregation area?

The length of a DCA will range from 100-650 feet (30-200m) at the lowest point. Rather than being a perfect square, it is wider at the bottom and tapers into a thin top, much like a witch’s hat. Low DCAs will start at just 16 feet off the ground while some are over 100 feet in the air.  

  • Queen bees often look for DCAs away from the colony, in search of suitable mating partners.
  • Drones will typically head to a DCA close to their hive; if they aren’t successful at finding a queen, they may use flyways to travel to different DCAs in search of new queens.

There is a high ratio of drones to queen bees, so many drones must head back to their colony unsuccessful.

A DCA may be made up of male honey bees from many different colonies. Understanding exact numbers are complex, but it’s believed a mating zone may have drones from hundreds of different colonies. Having a wide mix of genetically diverse bees is good for their survival.

Is it risky for queens to mate?

Although the act of mating is relatively safe for the queen, getting to and from the drone congregation area is risky business. Their biggest threat is birds who can easily gulp down an unsuspecting queen bee.

Mating season is even more dangerous for a drone. During the mating process, their appendage will often be torn off, resulting in death. If they don’t mate, they’ll be shunned from the hive as winter arrives, and die from hunger or exposure within days.

How does the queen mate with drones?

For a queen to attract the attention of the drones, she must enter the drone congregation area. Once inside the zone, a comet-shaped swarm of up to one hundred drones zero in on her and begin their pursuit. The queen’s pheromones are at high levels, making her irresistible to male honey bees.

Rather than choosing a suitable mate, the queen instead mates with the first drone to arrive that’s capable of getting the job done. The process takes around five seconds before the drone dies and the queen decides whether to head back to her colony or continue mating with more drones. On average, a queen will mate with 12-20 different males in one session, to enhance genetic diversity.

Do all bee varieties have a DCA?

Honey bees have a unique mating ritual, creating a drone congregation area and mating off the ground. This differs from most other types of bees who mate in flowers or on the ground. While male honey bees pursue queens as a group, other male bee varieties may visit nesting areas alone.

Bees mating on a beehive rather than up in the air.
Unlike honey bees, some bee varieties mate on the ground.

Did you know? While male honey bees only mate once before dying, most other male bee species will mate many times.

How do drones prepare for mating?

About 10-12 days into their lives, drones reach sexual maturity. Over this time, they consume a lot of nectar and pollen to help elevate sperm levels and build strength.

Just before maturing sexually, drones begin flying around to get their bearings and understand where their hives are located. When the time comes to mate, they’ll wait for sunny conditions and head out to mate late afternoon.

  • Drone flights generally last 10-40 minutes at a time.
  • Each fine day, they’ll take up to four flights looking for a queen.
  • Drones may return to their hive or use a nearby one if it’s more convenient. 

Summing up

The drone congregation area is a fascinating part of bee life and how the drones decide on the area is still a mystery. Once a queen enters a DCA, it means she can receive the sperm from a dozen or more drones. Once complete, she can then head to alternative DCAs to continue mating, or head back to the colony and begin laying eggs.    

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