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What is the lifespan of a drone honey bee?

So what is the real lifespan of a drone? If you check beekeeping websites and blogs, you can find any number you want to believe. I uncovered dozens of estimates—everything from 10 days to six months—in just a few minutes of searching. So I left the web and tried books with well-known and well-informed authors instead. This is what I found.

First of all, drones that are successful at mating—the ones that get to pass their genes onto the next generation—live a much shorter life than those who have failed. Apparently, getting lucky has its drawbacks, at least in the honey bee world. It follows that an extraordinarily long life does not indicate strength and vitality; it only means the bee was no good at catching a woman.

Lifespan varies with activity

According to Caron & Connor in Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (2013), after emergence, drones must build up their strength by eating honey and bee bread for a week or more before they are ready to mate. Next comes orientation flights which will enable them to find their way home. Only after they are well-fed and well-oriented do they attempt mating flights. These flights are very short for the youngest drones but may increase up to about 40 minutes for older ones.

In The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), Stanley Schneider estimates that spring and summer drones live approximately 3–5 weeks. But he also points out that the longer-lived drones are the ones that failed to mate with a queen.

In The Biology of the Honey Bee (1987), Mark Winston estimates an average lifespan of 21–32 days during the spring and mid summer, but he also notes accounts of individual drones living 43 days in those seasons.

A paper by Fukuda and Ohtani, “Survival and life span of drone honeybees,” published in 1977 but still behind a paywall, reports that drones in late summer and fall when queens are scarce may live 90 days. It’s not only the act of mating that shortens a drone’s life, but also the heightened peril that accompanies multiple flights. Whether they are successful or not, drones that don’t risk their lives for love survive much longer than their more amorous counterparts. Apparently, if you stay home, sit on the porch, and eat well, your life expands before you.

Drones are on their own

I’ve always heard that drones must beg food from workers, but this method of feeding is actually limited. According to Winston, young drones stay near the center of the brood nest during the first few days of life where they are fed by nurse bees. As they mature, they move to the periphery of the nest where they feed themselves. During the maturation period, which lasts about 12 days, the drones spend their time resting, grooming, and eating.

All of these authors agree that life is cut short for the drones when the days become shorter. As winter approaches, the workers kick the drones out of the house where they die of cold or starvation. According to Fukuda and Ohtani, the eviction process may last many weeks or months. But they also state that “Colonies do not always throw their drones out;…populous colonies with substantial honey storage or those without queens may allow drones to remain through a summer dearth period or the winter months.”

This last statement makes sense because a queenless hive, which frequently develops laying workers, would have an abundance of late season drones and not enough workers to throw them out. It follows that the appearance of late season drones could possibly signal a problem, but not necessarily.

Staying safe

None of these references mentions drones that last throughout the winter. Unlike “winter bees”—those workers that develop fat bodies to help carry the colony through cold weather—long-lived drones seem to survive by chance. Without risking the dangers of the outside world, they survive by keeping safely out of harm’s way. And if the colony is large with plenty of stores, the workers may ignore them.

This life, relatively safe and quiet, is very different from the life of a summer drone. A drone in peak season may go on multiple mating flights per day, with only a few minutes in between for tanking up on fuel. After eating, the pre-flight checklist includes antenna and eye cleaning, all the better for finding those virgins.

In short, any activity performed outside the hive, regardless of whether it’s a queen, drone, or worker,  is fraught with danger. Once tucked safely inside a healthy hive, chances for increased lifespan go up. Based on these accounts, it seems possible for a drone to live many months into the winter. But such a long life is nevertheless unlikely, and it appears to be more a result of happenstance than genetic predisposition.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Honey bee drones being shown the door.
Honey bee drones being shown the door. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

ET Ash
Reply

Well first off ‘winter’ in one location may look nothing like winter somewhere else. In mild winters here (the last couple have been that way here) you may see drones in hives 12 months of the year. The viability of these drones does (ie via drone semen viability test) vary greatly over the year. Work at the lab suggest drones will drift a lot between hives in a given apiary and one has to wonder if this is not one transmission vector for varroa. I would guess anyone that does II work has to know a lot about drones since this is an essential input for their work.

Gene in Central Texas and Merry Christmas to all…..

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

Good point. I should have mentioned I was referring to drones in climates where honey bees cluster for winter. Year round colonies are totally different.

BJ
Reply

Rusty,

That is great info regarding drones. Lots of new and well sourced information which was perfectly explained. I learned a lot about the “common drone.” More than I ever knew before.

What you noted above makes a lot of sense to me now regarding the 20-30 drones that I saw lounging on the front porch of their hive yesterday. This is my most robust hive with a huge population!

I was back out in the bee yard again today where I was putting together another 5 double deep hives including frames, inner cover, telescoping top, and screened bottom boards. During my breaks I would go and sit by my hives and check out their activity. There is something relaxing about sitting by the hives and watching them go in and out of the hive entrance.

Anyhow, it was warm again today (43 degrees in Santa Fe, New Mexico) and this particular hive acted like it was a summer day with all the bee activity. The foragers and drones were out in force again and the guard bees were letting the drones go back in and out of the hive through mouse guard at will. There were even foragers bringing in loads of pollen as well. I think I will raise some queens from this particular hive, they seem to be extremely acclimated to the cold and this was my biggest honey producing colony. My other 10 hives were not so active and were clustered with very little activity.

Once I thought I had a handle on their winter bee behavior, they change things up.

This sure has been an odd year in beekeeping!

IslandLife
Reply

“Apparently, if you stay home, sit on the porch, and eat well, your life expands before you.” – I may print that out as a reminder 🙂

Here in the tropics (Guam – Western Pacific, 13N Latitude), the few times I see drones evicted is after a colony swarms, or goes queen-less for some reason. Otherwise, they live out their full and happy lives, chasing girls, and sitting on the porch year-round.

Rusty
Reply

Sounds like…um…island life!

Phillip
Reply

I’m glad you dug a little deeper for this one, because I was about get cracking on it. You, through your references, answered a couple of questions I had in mind.

1) The drones eventually “move to the periphery of the nest where they feed themselves,” where, I assume, they continue to eat honey stores throughout the winter if they haven’t been evicted. Hmm… {rubs chin pensively}

2) Explanations for many beekeeping anomalies seem to swing from the ideal to the catastrophic. Exhibit A: “…populous colonies with substantial honey storage or those without queens may allow drones to remain through a summer dearth period or the winter months.” That’s lovely. Or as Billie Holiday said, that’s life, I guess.

Thanks for looking it up.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

Questions lead to more questions. It was worth looking it up.

Li
Reply

Thank you for gathering this information and explaining it so well. Here in upstate NY we have colonies that kick out drones early and often, as well as colonies that never shun their brothers. We have also had a colony this year that herded their drones into a huddle on the front of the hive, as in the previous post. One thing we haven’t had is any drones left when spring finally rolls around.

frances I Moore
Reply

Ha Rusty great study on drones I must be a bit crazy because when I see the drones being kicked out to die I want to pick them up and put them in a hive give them honey so they wont die I just feel so sorry for them.

That is what I feel and they are a bug I have lost my mind u have a Merry Christmas and keep doing what u do u are doing a wonderful job and Thanks

Charlie Rivers
Reply

Thanks for the research on one of the questions that I have had to answer with “I am not sure” many times.

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