Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Pre-Father's Day Shout Out to Drones!

Drones of two different bee races.  The lighter colored drone is
likely Italian while the darker color is probably Carniolan.
Much-maligned honeybee drones (the male bee in a colony) get a bad rap for being lazy because their one and only function is to mate with virgin honeybee queens. Unlike the busy (and aptly-named) worker bees (who are all females), drones don't collect nectar and pollen.  They don't tend to the brood.  They can't even defend the hive because they don't have stingers.  When they're not hanging out in "drone congregation areas" waiting for virgin queens to fly by, they shuffle from one colony to the next begging food from busy workers.

Yet drones serve a crucial function for honeybees by providing a diversity of genetic material that helps the entire population of honeybees survive.  As Thomas Seeley writes in Honeybee Democracy (2010, Princeton University Press), drones "help their colony win in the ceaseless evolutionary competition to pass genes on to future generations" (p. 24).

An interesting "Father's Day" fact about drones is that they themselves don't have fathers, though they do have grandfathers.  Here's why:  in most cases, the queen will fertilize the eggs she lays with sperm she obtained from mating with 10 and 20 drones when she took her maiden flight.  Fertilized eggs become female worker bees (or, if fed a rich diet of royal jelly, a potential new queen for the colony).  As Seeley writes, the queen will withhold sperm from about 5 percent of the eggs she lays.  These unfertilized (fatherless) eggs will become drones.  So, drones don't have a father, but they do have a grandfather--the drone that provided the sperm that fertilized the egg that eventually became the queen that laid the unfertilized egg to produce a drone.

While the drone's seemingly lazy life might sound like a sweet deal, if he's successful in achieving his life's mission and does mate with a queen, he does not survive the event.  Seeley writes that "when it comes to seeking sex, drone honeybees are no slackers" (p 24).  They strive to out-fly the other drone competitors and inseminate the queen 30 to 60 feet in the air. Go drones!

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