Male honeybees are known as drones. There are very few of them in a beehive compared to the number of female worker bees, and of course there is only ever one queen bee.
The sole purpose of drones is to mate with a virgin queen bee from a different hive in mid-air. There are always a whole lot of drones present.
The new queen mates with as many drones as she can to diversify the gene pool of her future baby bees. Then she goes home and starts laying up to 2,000 eggs every day of her life.
Drones do not always ‘get lucky’ on their first mating flight, so many of them make the pilgrimage over and over again until they either mate and die, or simply die waiting.
This unrelated 1:31-minute video by Khmer Beekeeping shows bees mating and how the drone drops dead to the ground after he fulfills his life's goal:
A new study by Queen Mary University of London in the UK has cracked the mating secrets code of the honeybee drone. Radar technology was used to reveal that the male honeybees swarm together in targeted aerial locations in groups of up to 10,000 individual bees to mate with the young queens.
Researchers report that tracking data showed some amazing information. Drones alternate between periods of straight and convoluted looping flight patterns within a single flight. The phases of looping flights were associated with four aerial locations where drones congregated. Incredibly, these specific sites remained consistent over a two-year period.
How do the drones know where these sites are? How do they find them? This remains a mystery. Since the average drone only lives for around 3-weeks, younger generations of bees could not find these places by following older drones.
Professor Lars Chittka, co-author of the study, indicated that findings show that drones locate the congregation sites as soon as their second ever flight, without having to search extensively. This means they must be able to get the information they need to guide them there by observing the landscape near their hive. This feat is a new mystery that researchers will continue to examine.
Researchers are considering that this gathering of males at congregation areas could be like ‘leks’ which is a mating system known from such animals as deer, where males gather solely in hopes of mating.
Dr. Joseph L. Woodgate, lead author of the study, explained that harmonic radar technology tracked the bees, and found that individual flight paths show a clear change of behavior from straight flight to looping flight, with the latter clustered in particular areas and repeated over two years. This confirms that stable drone congregation areas do exist, like ‘leks’ in other species.
Taking it further, research revealed that drones often visited more than one congregation area on a single flight, which is the first evidence for males of any species routinely moving between congregational sites and may be a new trend in the honeybee mating system.
Some similarities were noted about the behavior of drones and mosquito swarms at congregation sites.
An observation made by researchers is that when drones make the looping flight in one of these areas, the farther they go from the center the harder they accelerate back toward it. This creates a force that draws bees to the center and leads to a stable, coherent swarm.
Dr. Woodgate stated that understanding how bees select and find such far away targets based on their explorations of their nearby surroundings is important for us to understand and can play a role in improving robotics and artificial intelligence in the future. In other words, bee-inspired robotics.
You can check out the study, published in the journal iScience here.