Honeybee researchers from the Cluster of Excellence Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour (CASCB) at the University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior have published a study in Animal Behaviour that reveals that male honey bees (drones), once considered lazy, are sometimes the most active members of the colony.
The study, published in Animal Behaviour, was led by Michael L. Smith, an affiliate member of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the Cluster of Excellence CASCB, who encouraged Louisa Neubauer, a bachelor’s student, to examine drones.
Drones are crucial for the colony’s reproductive success, as they leave the hive only for mating flights and spend their lives in the hive as part of the colony. However, how drones behave in the hive and integrate with the rest of the colony remains unclear. To track the drones, individually marked drones were introduced to a colony living in a glass-covered observation hive. Some drones had paper tags containing individual codes and orientation codes on the thorax.
Using the BeesBook tracking system developed by Tim Landgraf’s group at the Free University of Berlin, Neubauer was able to follow the movement and position of each drone throughout their life by decoding the tags. The results showed that “from time to time, these ‘lazy’ drones are temporarily the most active individuals in the entire colony!”
Drones in a honeybee colony have synchronized hyperactivity periods, where they are the fastest individuals in the colony. This hyperactivity period coincides with the drones’ flight period, and the periods and synchronization are influenced by external factors and social information exchange. Researchers found that drones adapt their behavior to their tasks by limiting their energy consumption to a certain activity window.
The start and end times of their hyperactive periods are more synchronized inside the colony than expected by cueing on the weather alone. This suggests that drones communicate to make a synchronized collective decision when to leave the nest. The study also demonstrates that drones adapt their in-hive behavior to their task as male gametes of the colony.
They restrict their energy consumption by limiting their activity to a certain period of the day matching the time of mating flights while staying relatively immobile the rest of the day. The drones are located in the nest as required for their developmental stage without disturbing the work of other individuals. This highlights that drones contribute to the honeybee colony by reducing their own energy use, demonstrating their integration and adaptation to maximize the colony’s success.