Sunday, May 29, 2016

Drones (the case that drones are not PALTs)

Unlike what you may have been taught, drones are not just partially autonomous loafing testicles (PALTs) hanging around the hive eating up honey and being a drain on the colony. They are actually useful and cultivating a natural amount of drone comb is good for the hive, especially the treatment free hobbyist's hive.
One of the major benefits for the TF hive is that drones are a sink for varroa. Varroa are naturally drawn to the larger meatier drones with their longer development times. If the bees can successfully keep varroa in the drone brood (through smaller worker cells) then the damage the varroa do is confined to the drones. Damaged drones are then removed and ejected from the hive, costing little more than the bit of pollen and honey it took to make them, but saving a worker who would have cost not only the construction materials, but also the loss of a worker to do the work. I have seen hives that didn't have much hygienic ability but because they were confining the varroa to the drone brood, were able to successfully maintain operations with a relatively high mite load.
Secondly, I see drones as very useful for influencing the surrounding genetics to your location. It has been said that drones raised in more naturally sized cell hives fly faster and are healthier than extra large treated drones. That means your drones can have a much better chance of getting out there and mating with new queens in your area, and if your drones are TF survivors, you are pulling up the genetics in your area to match yours. That means even treated hives that swarm (or supersede their queen, which they often do) can have a measure of TF survivor genetics which in turn can re-benefit your operation when your queens mate.
As far as the food drones are supposed to be eating, bees eat relatively little. We all know that a single worker will only bring in about 1/20 of the teaspoon of honey (about one worker cell volume) in its lifetime, but may bring in sixty times that much weight (40 times the volume) in pollen. All the drones produced in a hive in a year may cost the hive only a couple pounds of honey and a couple pounds of pollen. Many times that are spent making workers. So do we reduce the number of workers? Of course not. It does cost the hive to make drones, I estimate it takes the honey production of one or two workers to make each drone. But if that drone prevents a varroa from infesting a worker, then you have pretty much made that worker-equivalent back. And how valuable is having a good drone to mate with your virgin queen? And let's remember that there are 4-9 times as many workers as there are drones, even in the worst of times. And the workers know how many drones to make, don't forget that.
Fourth, numbers from the Bee Informed National Survey show that removing drone brood does little to nothing for the survival of the colony, ostensibly due to varroa. You may be removing some varroa, but then the rest are going to have nowhere else to go but into worker brood, further damaging your hive's ability to deal with varroa and in fact selecting for varroa that infest worker brood, which we absolutely don't want. Every action we take in the hive selects for something. We are TF because we want strong bees and weak mites. Let's not muddy the waters by selecting for mites that like worker brood, that only hurts us.
In conclusion, I would say that you're not helping yourself all that much by getting rid of drones or drone brood, and in fact, the bees are going to want to build that drone brood back anyway, so you've perhaps cost yourself time and energy to build that comb again. You are hurting yourself by removing drones due to the selection of worker brood infesting mites, limiting your beneficial effect on the surrounding colonies, and by not sacrificing those drones to the mites which will protect your workers.