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Sacrificial Honeybee Drones

6-26-15 drone 039A honeybee colony has one (fertile, egg-laying) queen, several hundred male drones and thousands of (sterile) female worker bees. The drone’s one and only function is to mate with and fertilize a queen. (They do no work in the hive, and are fed by workers until fall.) Early in a queen’s life, she makes several mating, or nuptial, flights. On these flights, she mates — in midair about 200-300 feet high — with anywhere from one to more than 40 drones. They are usually not from the queen’s hive, but may be from several other hives. The average number of drones with which a queen mates is 12. The queen stores up to six million sperm from her mating flights, and retains them for the remainder of her life — two to three years, for a long-lived queen. (Recent research shows that the more times a queen mates, the more attractive she is to her worker bees, due to pheromone alterations, and thus, the longer she lives before being replaced.)

While the queen may live several years after mating, the few drones that manage to partner with her do not, for they die after mating. Although brief, honeybee mating is dramatic. The drone inserts his endophallus (internal penis) into the queen’s sting chamber and with great force injects his sperm into her. The force with which this is done is so powerful that it ruptures the endophallus, separating the drone from the queen. The drone dies shortly thereafter. (At this time of year, honeybee hives often swarm due to overcrowding, with the old queen departing with half of the hive; a new, virgin queen then takes her nuptial flights.) Photo: A drone honeybee which lost its life after successfully mating with a queen. Discovered and photographed by Boston Beekeeper Association founder, Sadie Richards Brown.

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7 responses

  1. Allan and Myra Ferguson

    Mary,I’ve found more information about the Devil’s Club plant. What I have in my forest is Hercules’ Club (or Devil’s Walking Stick) NOT Devil’s Club.Myra Ferguson

    June 26, 2015 at 8:26 am

  2. Alfred

    an ‘R’ rated limerick for your enjoyment:

    Bees do it and die;
    birds do it and fly.
    Dogs do it
    and stick right to it;
    so why can’t you and I?


    June 26, 2015 at 9:51 am

  3. Susan Holland

    Fascinating! And a great photo…like mother, like daughter 🙂
    And Tony is quite thankful that he’s not a honeybee.

    June 26, 2015 at 12:22 pm

  4. Ultimate sacrifice, indeed. What a way to go!

    June 28, 2015 at 12:34 pm

  5. Libby

    I’m actually curious, though, in this time of so few bee colonies – if one has a single hive with no other hives within say, 1 mile, might there be a problem if the hive’s own drones mate with a queen bred in that hive? How about over several generations?

    June 28, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    • Hi Libby,
      I do not know if this information is 100% accurate, but according to a study done in the early ’80’s by a Dr. Orley Taylor in Kansas, who folllowed queens and drones on mating flights using transmitters and radar, queens fly at least 3,000 meters from their hive before they mate. Drones never venture more than 1500 meters from their hive. This would keep a brother drone and sister virgin from mating. There may well be more recent research on this subject.

      June 29, 2015 at 8:11 am

      • Libby

        Hmmm…thanks….of course, the nuc I just got this spring had an already bred queen, so the question remains. It might be that replacing the queen from a supplier would cure the concern…but it sure is best of the hive can supersede their own queen.

        June 30, 2015 at 12:42 pm

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