At the start of a queen bee’s life, she sets off searching for male honey bees (drones) to mate with. This one-time event 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 agreed on is that drones don’t use 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 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 consist of male honey bees from many different colonies. Understanding exact numbers is complex, but hundreds of colonies could join the area. A wide mix of genetically diverse bees is good for their survival.
Is it risky for queens to mate?
Although mating is relatively safe for the queen, getting to and from the drone congregation area is risky. Their biggest threat is birds, which can quickly gulp down an unsuspecting queen bee.
Mating season is even more dangerous for drones. Their appendage typically gets torn off during this process, 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 high pheromone levels make her irresistible to male honey bees.
Rather than choosing a suitable mate, the queen mates with the first drone to arrive, 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 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 in the air. This practice differs from most other types of bees who mate in flowers or on the ground. While male honey bees pursue queens as a group, different species usually visit nesting areas alone.
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. They consume a lot of nectar and pollen over this time 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.
Can beekeepers manipulate the drone congregation area?
Researchers don’t have a good understanding of how a DCA is chosen. With this uncertainty, beekeepers are unable to create an environment that encourages drones to establish a congregation area.
How does the drone congregation area impact honey bee health?
The DCA plays an important role in maintaining genetic diversity within the honeybee population. This helps improve the colony’s health and resilience to environmental stressors.
Where are Drone Congregation Areas located?
Researchers find it difficult to predict where a DCA will be located. However, bees tend to choose sheltered, obstacle-free areas with plenty of light and a tree line or significant landmark.
Scientists can find DCAs using helium balloons containing a caged virgin queen or queen pheromones. They also use insect radars to help source an area with high concentrations of drones.
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.