The Great Drone Dump!
BY - JAMES ELAM
It’s fall! You’ve been looking forward to this time of year, unless you’re a drone honey bee. As beekeepers, we soon will be witness to “The Great Drone Dump” to occur at the entrance of our colonies. May be best described as a pushing and shoving match between boys and girls; the actions of the guard bees restrict drone re-entry to the colony. Physical removal of drones from within the colony also happens at the hands of other workers. The occurrence of the drone “dump” is an important aspect of internal winter colony management, coupled with instinctive survival demands. Considered mostly non-productive within the hive, drones are known to be a heavy drain on resources because they have really large appetites! Drones do not forage and are thus consumers and not suppliers. In other words, they are really good at drawing down colony food supplies. You would think that their primary purpose in life, the 2-5 seconds of mating with a queen, would be an area in which they excelled.
Video credit: MichiganShooter
Practically speaking, drones are highly adapted physically to the task of mating, however, practice does not make perfect in this instance. It is known that only a small percentage of drones actually ever mate and those that do, well, you know the rest of the story. The competition to mate is great and the queens available for mating are few. With these really bad odds, the probability of being dumped by the girls is real! Worse yet, getting dumped also guarantees that the free food supply chain has ended, and starvation and unbearable cold temperatures will follow.
Any drone bee that finds itself in a position to stay home and “just hang out” can live significantly longer than its more romantic buddies. Not unlike worker bees, flight time is directly associated with mortality. Less flying potentially leads to more time to hang out and a longer life. Practically speaking, what is the cost of this potential inconsistency with nature? After all, the “Great Drone Dump” must occur! Right?
Drones present during winter?
Interestingly enough, colonies don’t haphazardly make the dumping decision. Sometimes a really strong colony with abundant resources may not actually care that free loaders are present. All hands (”wings”) on deck when cold weather arrives! A sudden drop in colony and brood nest temperature brings even lowly remaining drones into action for the purpose of creating friction heat from their fanning uncoupled wings. Finally, something productive for a house drone to do!
Another circumstance of drones present in a winter colony can be found in one that is queenless. This makes sense when you rationalize the purpose of the Drone. They are logically keeping them around to mate with the potential replacement Queen. It’s even said that workers will “rob eggs” from neighboring colonies in order to produce the needed larva for an “ill timed” Queenless scenario. Once again, our honey bees are working beyond the intellect of an insect!
Have you seen drones on the ground in front of your colony in fall or being pulled out by a diligent worker bee? Take a minute to watch – you are witness to the annual Great Drone Dump!