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Do drones assemble above prehistoric sites?

Vita’s Blogger is continuing the search for Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs) and a fourth has turned up provoking an intriguing thought: could there be a connection between the location of DCAs and prehistoric monuments?

To recap: drones congregate in specific places to meet and mate with honeybee queens. No-one can consistently describe the areas nor predict where they might be. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Do the drones and queens locate these areas by smell, sight, hearing, air movements or something altogether different? Even the density of DCAs in a given area is subject to debate.

Having found a lively DCA close to the steep scarp slope of chalk downland (chalk landscapes often have a steep scarp slope in one direction and a more gentle dip slope in the other), I decided to venture along the scarp slope to see if there was another. The first one had been in the general vicinity of two mapped prehistoric barrows (ancient burial sites, often dating back 2000 years and more).

There was another. And even though the temperature was relatively cool (just above 20C), the drones were out in force. Here’s a video of them in action and showing the general location. In fact the drones were videoed just above the centre of a prehistoric bell barrow.

Karl Showler, well-known British beekeeper and author, has suggested that there could be a link between prehistoric sites and DCAs. He has wondered if prehistoric man was in awe of the buzzing sounds from unseen objects above their heads in certain locations. Perhaps they thought it was made by the gods and decided to build their special memorials beneath them. (We should remember that today we may not be sensitized to such sounds because of air and road vehicle noises and the noise is less because there are probably fewer honeybees since Varroa has arrived.)

However, there could be other explanations of the association between barrows and bees — if indeed there is an association at all. Prehistoric man often constructed barrows partly to mark the edge of their territories and often that might be just be below a ridge in the landscape. Drones might be attracted to these areas for other reasons, such as wind direction and air currents.

Beowulf Cooper suggested that drones like to operate in areas of warmed and rising air. It’s just possible that the disturbance of areas where barrows have been built create areas of warm updrafts. I think that might be fanciful, however, because the DCA stretched with some intensity quite some distance beyond the barrow.

Nonetheless, Karl Showler has raised an intriguing possibility of a link, deliberate or otherwise, between prehistoric man and honeybees. But there are other ideas too and nothing quite seems to suit all situations. Are we missing a critical factor that would explain all?

Next up: a DCA on a village recreation ground.

Turlough
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

Video of life in a Drone Congregation Area

Here’s a video of life in a Drone Congregation Area. This was my third outing to find a honeybee drone assembly and to my amazement, this third find is the best yet.

About thirty drones can be seen pursuing a caged and mated Queen in one of those special areas where Queens go to mate. This caged Queen actually mated last year and I had just caught her in a swarm, but she is still of great interest to these frisky drones. For the full story, see the links below.

You can read the stories so far of the search for Drone Congregation Areas here:

1 July 2015 In search of a mate

2 July 2015 Drone Congregation Areas

7 July 2015 Another Drone Congregation Area

20 July 2015 Video of Life in a Drone Congregation Area

28 July 2015 Do drones assemble above prehistoric sites?

3 August 2015 Drone Goal

 

Turlough
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

Another Drone Congregation Area! Part 3

A group of drones (top right) - probably pursuing a Queen

A group of drones (top right) – probably pursuing a Queen.

After the success of finding my first  honeybee Drone Congregation Area (DCA), I thought I’d try my luck again, but where to look?

The first DCA only partly fitted the rather vague research picture of where a DCA might be. By itself, the first DCA offered clues to possible locations, but not a definite picture.

After confirming the first DCA, we went off in search of another and after two very speculative and unsuccessful tests, I had a hunch about a place near my village. I didn’t  have a clearly defined site in mind, just a notion that a general area might produce a result.

It was getting late — after 5pm — so I wasn’t too hopeful The underlying geology was significantly different (no longer on the chalk downs) and the location was about five kilometres from the first DCA.

I walked along a track and the first sign was the buzzing of drones — then I saw them again! This time the site was a south-facing slope (the first was NE-facing), but again it was on a slight slope with a significant breeze which might have helped flight.

Again, the drones were flying at a height of about three to four metres, not the much higher altitude reported in the literature.

The hat lure.

The hat lure with a drone just visible mid-left..

Curiously my hat seemed almost as much an object of interest as the queen lure!

So can I find a third DCA? I’m really not sure! But I’ll be trying.

The bees’ algorithm for finding DCAs is still a mystery to me. There is something in the “declination in the horizon” (where the brightest point on the horizon starts to appear less bright) description, but in my experience it’s not that clear. Then again I’m not flying at drone height!

The  first recorded DCA is said to have been by eighteenth century naturalist Gilbert White in Selborne, just 25 kilometres from Vita’s Basingstoke HQ.

On 1 July 1792, White reported hearing “loud audible humming of bees in the air, tho’ not one insect is to be seen”.

It’s said that almost 225 years later, the Selborne DCA still exists, so I’ll be of there soon fishing rod in hand. I wonder if these ares were even more spectacular pre-Varroa when there were more feral colonies.

Update: see a video of a third Drone Congregation area.

Turlough
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

Drone Congregation Areas – Part 2

P1010289

Drones attracted to the queen pheromone lure.

Three days after my first apparent discovery of a Drone Congregation Area (DCA), a fellow beekeeper and I set out to confirm what I’d seen.

It was a hot Tuesday afternoon (yes, England can be hot), just after 3pm, with a firm high-pressure system breeze coming in from the north-east.

When we first reached the area with the queen pheromone on the end of a fishing rod, there seemed little of interest. But quickly the drones started to build up. I don’t know whether it was the lure attracting them or whether it was the time of day.

There were even more drones this time. They almost seemed to be rising out of the barley field. They were very low flying skimming just a few feet above the ripening barley heads. Perhaps they were keeping out of the breeze.

It soon became apparent that the lure was at its most effective at about 3 metres above the ground, not the several metres suggested in the literature.

P1010293

Fly fishing? No, honeybee fishing.

The noise of the drones’ buzzing was impressive! If you look very closely in the photos, you can see black specks throughout the pictures. They are drones and not camera lens defects.

Again, the area seemed clearly defined and the same as before although I was limited in my search by having to stick to tractor tramlines within the crop. (I’ll be back after harvest to mark out the territory more precisely.)

After a while, there was no need for the lure, as the drones were plain to see. They often travelled in groups and these may well have have been drones chasing queens. If they were chasing queens there were a surprising number of queens on the wing given that the immediate area doesn’t have many beekeepers.  Chris who was with me and taking the photos thinks he actually witnessed a drone mounting a queen.

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The general area of the DCA on chalk downland.

After a mesmerising hour, we moved on to other areas. More about that in Part 3.

Turlough
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

In search of a mate – Drone Congregation Areas – Part 1

Gone fishing in a Drone Congregation Area.

Gone fishing in a Drone Congregation Area. (The black dots are drones!)

I’ve always been fascinated by the existence of Drone Congregation Areas (DCA) — those special zones where honeybee Queens go to mate.

Humans have bars, clubs, churches and all sorts of venues. Honeybees have Drone Congregation Areas – somewhat mysterious locations in the landscape that are hard to define.

A Queen leaves the hive only a very few times in her life, so how does she know where to go to meet up with drones?

The drones leave daily in good summer weather, but how do they know where to gather? Their previous season’s brothers are long since deceased, so there is no family folklore to follow.

The research on Drone Congregation Areas (DCAs) is still in its relatively early stages, but a new book Mating Biology of Honey Bees provides fascinating insights. It helped in my search.

Here was my experience last Saturday in Hampshire, in southern England:

I acquired some queen pheromone, an extra-long fishing rod and on a warm sunny afternoon set off from one of my apiaries (like a demented soul) with a fishing rod and lure pointing skyward. (But not so demented as to be careless around power lines.)

Half an hour of walking produced no reaction from anything. So I returned to the apiary and put the lure at the entrance of one hive. Still there was no reaction whatsoever! I was beginning to doubt the lure.

I set off along a path in the opposite direction heading for what I interpreted from the literature might be a potential zone, in a dip in the horizon.

As I walked down a slope towards the dip, I started to hear buzzing. I walked further down and it disappeared. So I returned up the slope and so did the buzzing. Then the drones started to be attracted to the lure. Success!

I was amazed to be so lucky on my first outing. The DCA seemed quite clearly defined occupying an approximate circle of about 75 metres diameter. There were quite clear boundaries where the drones seemed to disappear — at the top of the slope, where it levelled off and bordered a small woodland, and as the slope approached the bottom, again lined by trees. Across the slope there appeared to be quite clear limits too.

The second outing yesterday proved even more dramatic. More in Part 2 now online.

Turlough
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

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