Today marked the first sighting of drones in the apiary this year. For those of you not initiated into the beekeeing lingo – a drone is a male bee. They are much larger than workers and have distinctively large eyes that almost cover their whole head. When they first appear they stick out like a sore thumb in relation to the slender and familiar worker bees. I remember in my first season as a beekeeper being so shocked seeing them coming and going, that I spent some time considering if they were some other strange species altogether.The first drones are one of the marker points of the beekeeping year as it signifies that the colony is moving into the sexual phase of the yearly life-cycle. Fortunately sex is the specialist subject of the drones, their large muscular bodies and broad visual range giving them the optimal equipment for finding their mate. When discussing drones it is extremely difficult not to slip into anthropomorphism, so I will resist as best I can, trusting that you will find ways to do this yourselves anyway.
Drones spend most of their time either in the hive or hanging out In drone congregation zones or DCZs. These are high up areas in the landscape that all the drones from that region go to, err, well, to congregate. These spots stay the same year on year and probably have existed for generations. Very occasionally a virgin queen bee will fly past the DCZ and the boys spring into action, chasing their potential mate for all they are worth. When the strong, agile or lucky ones catch up with their queen they mate in flight. A tricky procedure at the best of times but for our drones complicated further by their inability to ejaculate with the necessary force to impregnate the queen. They get round this issue by doing a backflip at the climax of their lovemaking, the force of which impregnates the queen as well is snapping off the drones endophallus. The drone then falls to his death. It is unclear whether the final moments of the drones life are ecstasy or agony but either way in my book its a rather spectacularly acrobatic way to go. Then the next drone to catch the queen removes the previous drones member and the continues along the same vein. The young queen may mate with up to 20 drones over several mating flights and she stores the semen inside of her for the rest of her life.We now know how crucial the thoroughness of this mating process is for the health of the honeybee. The more drones the queen has mated with the more genetic diversity there is within the hive. The workers are all half sisters and due to the mix of differing genes along the male line they all have slightly different abilities to perform tasks and overcome challenges. Having this mix of tendencies in the workers leaves the overall hive more resilient because it increases the range of challenges that workers will be able to effectively overcome.
Unfortunately beekeeping practice has been affecting the amount of drones available in the environment and thus negatively affecting the thoroughness of queen mating. This in part is due to the bad reputation the drones have among beekeepers. Drones have often been characterized as lazy slobs who hang around eating all the honey and not doing anywhere near their fair share of the housework. They do no foraging and are therefore seen as a drain on the colony and on honey supplies. Beekeepers have distorted the ratio of drones within the hive in two ways. In order to understand the first way I’ll need to explain some honeybee biology. The queen bee, or my preferred name the mother bee, does all of the egg laying within the hive and she has the capacity to decide whether to lay a male or a female egg. She makes this decision based on the size of cell (the hexagonal section of comb) in which she is going to lay an egg. In a large cell she lays a male and in a small cell she lays a female. Wild bees are left to build the comb as they please and therefore are in control of the ratio of males and females within the hive. Beekeepers often don’t allow the bees to build their comb as they please but instead use foundation – a printed wax template, which predetermines the cell to a standardized size and the bees are no longer able to decide for themselves the male/female ratio within the hive.
Another common practice is culling drones. Drone culling is often used as a technique to control Varroa – a parasitic mite that effects the health of the whole colony. Varroa prefer to breed in the cells of the drone larvae because they are larger and slightly cooler. Beekeepers put in frames with drones sized foundation hoping that the varroa will all move into drone cells and then when the cells are capped the beekeeper removes the frame and destroys it as a way to bring the Varroa numbers down within the hive. Drone culling is often used as part of what is called IPM – integrated pest management. The idea being that various strategic and differing interventions are made throughout the year based on the life-cycle of the pest and host that in combination bring the pest levels down to a manageable level. This all sounds well and good but IPM evolved out of an increasing awareness within agriculture that large scale indiscriminate pesticide use was often ineffective and problematic. While I welcome the more discerning use of interventions I would like to share the perspective of organic agriculture. Organic farming often uses an IPM approach to pests but with limitations on the extent to which toxic and harmful chemicals can be used, however organics sees as the foundation the health of the whole system. So to use a farm as an example system – the first step before any IPM interventions are made is to ensure the whole farm is functioning as healthily as possible – that there are nest sites, food and water for pest predators, that there is biodiversity on the farm, the soil is healthy, that rotations are used to prevent pests building up in the first place, etc. Only when all this is in place, when the everything has been done to reduce stress and encourage health in the whole system, will IPM methods be used. It seems to me that the until beekeepers begin to adopt this attitude – one in which all necessary steps are taken to minimize stress within the colony and support the health of the whole – then beekeeping practice will continue to negatively effect honeybee health. Only when we collectively prioritize the long term health of the whole over short term extraction will we begin to face the ecological challenges ahead.