The traffic was light and there were only a few couples walking down the sidewalk, but downtown Dundee was swarming with activity last Friday afternoon. Issuing out from a crack between brick buildings, a swarm of honeybees was engaged in a flight of fancy. A large number of bees milled about the corner space where two buildings came together about two stories up (see below). An equivalent number were flying around and their wings were catching the low angled sun peeking over the roof line. It wasn’t immediately apparent what was going on – the action looked very much like that normally seen at the entrance to a hive. It was worth investigating.
There was a single dead honeybee laying on the shaded sidewalk beneath the hub-bub. It was a worker bee whose time was up. She was probably thrown from the hive after serving her terms of labor. I picked the spent creature up and held her in my palm (see above). Admittedly, the first thought that came to my mind was Walter Brennan’s oft repeated line from the 1944 Bogie and Bacall movie called “To Have and Have Not.” Brennan’s character Eddie would ask “wuz you ever stung by a dead bee?” He claimed that he was. I probed the lifeless form in my hand to make sure it wuz…er, I mean…was… dead and felt assured that it was no longer in stinging mode. Worker bees are the life force of the colony who gather nectar, tend to the young, and tend to the queen. They are equipped with sacrificial stingers which they employ when defence of the hive is required. All these functions cease to be functional after death, however.
The next bee I found proved to be much more interesting because it was very much alive. It was a drone – a male bee whose sole purpose in the hive is to mate with the virgin queens. Drones are quite a bit larger and hairier than the workers. They are easily identified by their large black eyes which touch in the middle of the head in the manner of a dragonfly. This is a bee which can be handled safely because it is sting-less, so placing this one on my finger for a close up was not an act of courage (see below). When closely examined, the drone looks more like a fuzzy fly than a honeybee (see here).
The presence of this male bee caused me to re-examine the colony above and I soon realized that most of the swarm actually consisted of drones (see here). This fact, combined with the fact that most of them were flying about, makes me believe that I was witness to a mating swarm. Drones become prevalent in the late spring and early summer when the existing queen lays unfertilized eggs. These eggs develop into the male drones (so, drones have no fathers but do have grandfathers!). A host of newly emerged virgin queens begin to emerge about the same time.
The drones begin to fly out every afternoon and congregate into specific aerial locations, usually 10-40 meters high, where they hope to rendezvous and mate with the fresh new queens. In the incredibly precise lingo of bee-keeping terminology these locations are called DCA’s for Drone Congregation Areas.
Each queen mates multiple times before finally flying off to establish a new colony. What happens to the drones? Well, the lucky ones die soon after mating. The luckless majority return to the hive and bum around. Since they are unable to feed themselves and do not gather nectar or pollen, they have to be fed by the workers. They are all finally kicked out of the hive and are left to starve at the end of the summer. There are no boys around the hive when it goes into overwintering mode.
My drone appeared confused and made no attempt to re-join his comrades on the launching pad above. I thought about taking the thing around town and asking people “Wuz you ever stung by a boy bee?” but I didn’t. I decided that Dundee wuz not ready for that kind of thing, nor wuz I.