If the queen is the ovaries and the workers are the body and brains of the colony as a super-organism, then the drones are its balls. The primary function of a drone is to mate with a queen but he also seems to have a calming effect on the temperament of the colony.
The high point of the drone’s career is to mate with a queen. To do this he flies up to a Drone Congregation area drones hang out with the other lads, coasting together on benevolent thermals, cracking jokes and waiting for queens. When a queen does come along then the first to get to her, mates with her. Sadly for the winner, his triumph is short-lived because mating with the queen is a savage business, which always ends with the snapping off of his private parts.
It has been observed that colonies of bees which have their drone populations removed do not handle as well as those with a full complement. So it seems possible that despite the high cost involved in rearing them and feeding them, the presence of a crowd of cheery drones is beneficial to the overall well-being and temperament of the colony.
The rise of Varroa in recent years led to the another drone function and this was purely as a means of Varroa control. Varroa breed in capped brood and they prefer drone brood, probably because it remains capped for longer perhaps allowing more generations. This was a double whammy for the drone because not only was he more prey to Varroa predation than his sisters but a proportion of his number was doomed to being harvested mid-metamorphosis and burned by the beekeeper as a part of an Integrated Varroa Management plan.
But we don’t do that any more. Shortage of drones leads to queens not getting properly mated so drone brood is encouraged by the insertion of frames of drone comb in spring.
At the first signs of the approach of autumn though, the honeybee colony turns on the bewildered drones, forcibly ejecting them from the hive where they die of cold, hunger and heartbreak.
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