Lets Talk About Drones and Brood!
When diving into your colony and doing an inspection it is so important to have a goal in mind. If you are checking your frame counts you may be taking note of how much worker (female) brood and drone (male) brood is present in the hive. Do you see Queen cells? These questions become important when managing your colony because it may determine your next steps in managing the hive. When doing an inspection be sure to only do thorough inspections on warm days say 60 degrees F and above. Chilling the brood and or Queen can have major consequences to the survival of your hive. The colony likes to maintain an ambient temperature of roughly 70-80 degrees F with the brood chamber at 93-96 degrees F.
Take a look at this photo. Can you tell the drone brood from worker brood? Drone brood is usually larger and a bit more bubbly looking toward the outer sides of the brood frame. Drone brood is often found here because the larvae and pupae of the drones prefer a slightly lower temperature than worker brood. Drone brood is also preferred by varroa mites due to the brood cell being larger and so an extra varroa mite cycle can take place here. (Research “drone brood removal” for more info on natural/chemical free beekeeping varroa treatment.)
A drones primary job is to mate with the virgin queen bees in DCA’s or Drone Congregation Areas. Usually the DCA is 30-200 meter radius and 15-40 meters high and research shows that these areas can remain at the same location for years. I like to think of this as where the bees go hang out for a “social happy hour of sorts”. Drones will mate with virgin queens 7-10 times before its abdomen is ripped open when his endophallus is removed and the drone dies.
Why is this important now? Springtime is when the hive is booming with decision making, not only for the beekeeper but the hive. Is the hive going to swarm? Does the beekeeper want to prevent swarming? Does the beekeeper want to try and split the hive? Understanding the biology of the bees is key to decision making for a sustainable apiary. Drones must be present for virgin queens emerging from the hive to mate. If drones are not present splits and queen rearing efforts will become null and void.
Different locations throughout the country have different seasons and rhythms, however here in the northeast April-July are the time to keep frame counts and ratios of your brood frames and frame ratios if working on splits. If we back up a minute, we know that drones are basically “kicked out” of the hive in the fall by the worker bees hunkering down and preparing a smaller colony to maintain for winter. So having enough drones present in spring is something to keep an eye on when deciding how to proceed in your apiary. Splits can be done in Spring and/or summer, however the technique may vary based on if you are rearing your own queens, ordering queens and what time of year it is.