Drones Make Love Not War


I have two hobbies: beekeeping and building/flying multirotors or drones. There is rarely any overlap between the two but recently I have noticed a spate of YouTube videos with titles such as:

Some of these videos are picked up by the media and further sensationalized. Too bad they all get the story so wrong. These bees, drones actually, are not angry. They are simply horny and they think they found a virgin queen worth dying for.

For those readers new to honey bees, I offer this quick summary of honey bee biology. Honey bees have three castes or forms: sterile females or workers, males or drones, and typically a single reproductive female or queen. A queen's job is to lay eggs. She can lay up to 1500 eggs a day for several years. But first, she needs to copulate with about 12 (plus or minus 7) drones because she will never mate again once she starts laying eggs. Drones are flying penises. They carry genetic material. That's about all they are good for. They don't even have stingers like the girls do. Most drones will never mate with a queen but when they do, they do it in the air, the drone has his gonads ripped out of his body, and he falls to his death. Satisfied, I hope. The workers handle every other task: feed the queen and growing larva, put away honey, build out wax comb, fill cracks with bee glue, take out the dead, guard the entrance, warm or cool the inside of the hive, and forage for food.

What all of these videos show are drone congregation areas or DCAs. These are areas where drones from different colonies gather in hope of mating with a queen. A DCA is typically 10-40 meters above ground with a diameter of 30-200 meters. The utility of a DCA is that it provides an efficient way for a queen to acquire genetic material from outside of her own colony. Inbreeding is bad for any species.

DCAs have been known to persist in one geographic location for 12 years. This is curious because drones do not survive the winter as workers do (the girls kick their brothers out of the hive each Fall) so there must be something intrinsic in the area itself to attract drones from multiple colonies to the same place year after year. Yet another honey bee mystery waiting to be solved.

Drone congregation areas are not rare but their discovery is rare. They are normally discovered in urban areas by observing a number of dead drones on the concrete or asphalt. Balloons and kites with suspended nets and pheromone lures have been used in the past to study DCA but perhaps multirotors could offer a better research platform, eh?

How can I be so sure that these videos are of drone congregation areas?

  • If you step through frames, you will see that these bees have rounded bottoms - that is the stingless abdomen of a drone.
  • Workers have no reason to congregate above tree level because there is no food there. They may fly above tree level to reach a nectar source 3 miles distant but they do not tarry nor do they travel in packs.
  • I know, I know, that's not what happens in the movie "Deadly Bees" but honey bees away from their colony are not aggressive. They will defend their colony and themselves but they do not attack unprovoked. Honey bees are vegetarians, for Pete's sake.
  • The buzz of a multicopter may attract the horny drones in a congregation area. But I have flown my multirotor within a few feet of three busy hives - seeking to solicit a response - but the worker bees showed no interest or aggressive behavior at all.

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  • Moderator

    Very interesting, same thing here in Africa. On one occasion the bees I observed seem to fly under the multirotor and unfortunately dart upwards occasionally to be struck by the blades killing them, I assumed they had stingers so moved the couple I found off the concrete driveway as I was barefoot. They in turn were eaten by a few garden skinks (lizards). Will have to inspect the bees if it happens again to confirm they have rounded bottoms.

    The bees seemed active in a zone between 5 and 15 meters.

  • Brilliant information, thanks for sharing with us.

  • That's a pretty fascinating analysis. I've experienced this as well. My experience was that the bees chased my 450 sized quad while in the air, but had no interest as soon as I landed. I assumed they were attracted by the noise, but it's interesting to know that they may just be horny and not angry.

  • Very interesting thankyou!

  • Developer

    Horny killer bees?

  • Not sure which would be worse - killer bees or horny bees :)

    Great post, thank you!

  • I have flown my Quad within 3 feet of my Hives with no signs of the bees getting aggressive. I have also flown my Quad (and landed on) a friends hive that tends to be a bit more aggressive than average (the hive started as a captured swarm). There was a purpose to landing the quad on the hive (made a good platform for a camera).

    From the videos, you are right the "Drones" were flying in drone congregation areas. Could the Drones be attracted to the sound made by a Quad? The videos clearly showed the Drone bees flying around and near the quads but not being aggressive towards them.

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