Why are Drones actually important?
Natural beekeepers tend to think of honeybee colonies more in terms its intrinsic value to nature than its ability to produce honey for humans. However, conventional beekeepers as well as the general public are more likely to associate honeybees more with honey.
Since our association with Apis mellifera began a few thousand year ago, this has been the main reason for the attention that they have received. I think most people, if they think about honeybee colonies at all, think of them as ‘a living system that makes honey’. Before the first encounter between honeybees and humans, these adaptable insects had flowering plant and the natural world largely to them – with the exception of the occasional dinosaur.
They had over tens of thousands of years evolved alongside flowering plant species and selected the best quality pollen and nectar to use. We can assume that the less productive flowers went extinct. Only those that were able to use the wind to spread their genes, rather than insects, can be assumed. The honeybee evolved over 130 million years into the colony-dwelling, highly efficient and adaptable creature we know today.
She has a variety of behavioral adaptations that have allowed her to ensure high levels of genetic diversity within the Apis species. This includes the queen’s propensity to mate at a distance from her hive and at flying speed, at some height, with a dozen or more male bees who have traveled considerable distances from their colonies. Multiple mating with strangers in foreign lands ensures heterosis, which is vital for any species’ viability.
Role of Drones
Each drone has its own selection mechanism and only the strongest and fittest drones get to mate. An unusual feature of the honeybee, which adds a species-strengthening competitive edge to the reproductive mechanism, is that the male bee – the drone – is born from an unfertilized egg by a process known as parthenogenesis. The drones are haploid. Only one set of chromosomes is derived from their mother. This means that the queen’s biological imperative to pass on her genes to future generations is expressed through her genetic investment in her drones. The conference was therefore able to see the honeybee colony as a living system that produces fertile, healthy drones in order to perpetuate the species through the spreading of the genes of the highest quality queens.
This model of the honeybee colonies gives us a completely different perspective than the traditional one. Now we can see honey, nectar and pollen as fuels and the worker bees are simply serving the queen’s needs. They will also perform all the tasks necessary to ensure the colony runs smoothly. This will allow us to produce high-quality drones that carry the genes of their mother from distant colonies.
It is possible to speculate about the biological triggers that lead drones to be raised at specific times and then evicted or killed off at others. We can speculate about the mechanisms that control drone numbers as a percentage and what other functions they may have within the hive. It is easy to imagine how drones are able to find their way into ‘congregation zones’. These are areas where they gather to wait for virgin queens to pass through. They rarely live more than three months and barely survive the winter.
Main focus of Beekeeping
We don’t know everything and may never fully grasp it all. This way of looking at honeybee colonies is important because it challenges many of the practices of modern beekeeping. I am referring to post-Langstroth, post-1850 beekeeping. Honey production has always been the main focus of beekeeping. Many modern practices were designed to suppress the production of drones, which is contrary to the evolutionary interest of the queens.
To support this thesis, we can point to the invention of wax foundation. This wax foundation was imprinted with the cell pattern from worker bees and was designed to encourage the colony’s growth of the maximum number possible of workers and the least number of drones. We can also blame those who decided that frames should not be spaced too close together, allowing only the building of worker cells and limiting the ability to force drone cells to the outer edges of the comb.
We can also mention and condemn the encouragement given by certain quarters to ‘cull’ drone pupae in the hope of reducing Varroa destructor population in our hives. Recent practices such as sterilization of woodwork, and the use plastics ensure that hives are free from other tiny creatures that have evolved to share hollow logs and trees. We are now discovering that some of these tiny bugs may be the key to how pests and diseases can be controlled. Varroa is being controlled by mites from the Stratiolelaps genus.
I believe that even the humble earwig or wood louse may play a part. Our bee colonies have become mono-cultures that lack diversity. This has led to an almost universal use of miticides in the last 50 years. It is not clear what damage the use of neonicotinoids and pyrethroids, which are widely used in our toxic agricultural system, may have caused to the soil that supports all life.
I believe that modern beekeeping has a long history of anti-drone behavior by beekeepers. This is because they are ignorant of their true role in the colony, and in direct contradiction to the needs and instincts the queen honeybee. Although they may be proud of their love and devotion to their bees, conventional beekeepers are actually denying the wishes of their bees by focusing their efforts on the fuel for this complex system rather than its true purpose, which is the production of high-quality drones. Without these drones, Apis mellifera will be doomed just as surely as the dinosaurs.
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