A 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.