As you get into beekeeping, you will find that there are many gadgets and gear that can help you in your beekeeping efforts. You may have heard mention of a drone frame for beekeeping, but what is this device, and how does it work?
A drone frame is a brood frame including a foundation with large cell imprints to encourage the bees to build drone cells on the frame. These drone frames can be easily removed by the beekeeper and destroyed to reduce the varroa mite load within the bee colony.
Drone frames are not a must-have item for all beekeepers, but for beekeepers in certain regions, they can be an indispensable piece of hive equipment that can help you and your bees! We will explain what a drone frame is, how it works, and how it benefits the beekeeper and the bees!
What Is A Drone Frame For Beekeeping?
Drone frames are only applicable for beekeepers using the Langstroth-style beehives. These beehives use frames of a specific size for the brood chamber and the honey supers.
The brood chamber is a deeper box with larger frames and is where the queen is located and where the eggs will be laid and the brood raised, which is why it is called the brood chamber.
A honey super is a shallower box with correspondingly smaller frames where the bees build comb to store honey, hence the name honey supers.
In most cases, beekeepers use a foundation on these frames to encourage the bees to build their comb straight and in a certain formation. The foundation sheets can be made from beeswax, with an imprint of the hexagonal cell shapes on the wax to give the bees a foundation on which to build the cells.
The foundation sheets can also be made from plastic with the cell shapes embossed into the flat plastic sheet to provide a similar foundation for the bees to draw out the comb quickly and in an organized pattern.
A drone frame is a typical Langstroth deep frame with a wax or plastic foundation imprinted with larger brood cell shapes to encourage the bees to build drone cells on the frame.
How Does A Drone Frame Work?
The foundation sheet has a larger cell structure imprinted on it, making it easy for the bees to build the larger drone cells on the foundation.
Where a drone frame is not introduced into the hive, the bees will build drone cells in various locations throughout the frames in the brood chamber, typically on the periphery, below worker brood cells.
Installing a drone frame as the outside frame on each side of the brood chamber will encourage the bees to build all the drone cells on the drone frames. Building all the drone cells in these locations prevents the colony from creating drone cells elsewhere in the brood chamber.
The queen will only lay drone eggs in cells of the correct size. If the bees have created all these drone cells on the drone frame, the queen will move to this frame and lay all the drone eggs in the larger cells on the frame.
For the beekeeper, having all the drone brood in single, manageable locations has several benefits, especially for controlling certain pests.
What Are The Benefits Of Drone Frames?
So how does it benefit the beekeeper and the bees to have all the drone brood on a single frame? The primary reason for using drone frames in your hive is for pest control, specifically for the control of varroa mites.
The varroa mite is a tiny, blood-sucking parasite that infests a colony, attaches itself to the bees, and drinks their blood.
The effect this has on the bees is to sap them of energy, making them lethargic and less productive. If the mite load becomes too heavy, the bees die.
Varroa mites are responsible for a condition called Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, where the numbers of mites in the colony reach the point that the colony is no longer sustainable, and the bees die out, causing the death of the entire colony.
So how does the drone brood fit into this equation? The mites reproduce directly in the beehive and prefer to reproduce in drone larvae because the drone larvae are capped for longer than worker larvae.
The longer capping of drone larvae fits in with the gestation period of the mite eggs and larvae, giving them better breeding success in drone larvae.
When the drones emerge, they are already infested with varroa mites and carry the mites throughout the rest of the colony.
When the female mites are ready to lay their eggs, they hitch a ride on the nursery bees that feed the larvae in the hive. Drone larvae are typically fed more frequently than worker bees because they grow bigger.
When the female mite detects a drone larva of the appropriate age, she deposits her eggs on the larva.
Drone Brood Is Destroyed To Limit Mite Reproduction.
In a measure to control the reproduction of the mites in the colony, the drone brood frame is removed once the cells have been capped, and the brood, along with the mites, is destroyed.
Studies have shown that using a single drone frame once a month for 4 or 5 months in a hive can prevent the mite population from becoming overwhelming for the colony for a period of 2 to 4 months thereafter.
However, using two drone frames, one on each side of the brood chamber for the same period, can prevent the mite load from becoming destructive for up to a year.
Once capped, the drone frames are removed from the hive by the beekeeper, placed in a plastic bag, and put in a freezer for 48 hours to kill the larvae and the mite eggs.
Bee colonies can typically have up to 17% drone brood, which contributes to the colony succumbing rapidly to mite infections and suffering from CCD.
Using brood frames does not eliminate all the drones from the colony, as the bees will still build some drone cells on the other frames. The drone frames work by reducing the drone ratio in the colony from 17% down to 3% or 4%, which provides sufficient drones for breeding while limiting the mite population growth.
Should You Use Drone Frames To Control Varroa Mites?
Using drone frames is a mechanical method for controlling varroa mites without introducing potentially harmful chemical control methods into the hive.
This approach to varroa mite control is a natural method that has shown to produce results that rival that of the chemical methods.
If you prefer to adopt a natural approach to your beekeeping as I do, then managing the mite problem with drone frames is the preferred option, even if it requires a little extra work.
Drone frames are specialized brood frames with a foundation inserted that encourages the bees to build drone comb on the frame.
This strategy results in a large portion of the drone brood being produced on these frames, allowing for easy removal of the frames and destroying the drone larvae along with the varroa mite eggs. This method is a chemical-free method of controlling these beehive pests!
Writer’s own experience.