Are they underestimated?
How many times have you heard or seen in print "A drone is a male bee whose only function is to mate with queens"? This is another of beekeeping's "facts" that is still peddled by those with little knowledge of the subject. We have known for some time they perform other functions as well and there are probably others still to be discovered.
The long established view that drones are lazy, do no work and simply exist to perform one act of mating is a very simplistic view and for some strange reason isn't often challenged. I have no evidence, but I have a strong suspicion that a lady, probably with a great dislike for men, came up with this theory in the distant past and like a lot of stories, it has simply been handed down through the generations. I jest of course, but it gets a few laughs when I raise it during a lecture!
Being a little more serious, from a human point of view it's difficult to understand why so many drones are produced by a colony, when there are so few, perhaps 10-20 that will normally mate with a queen and once a year at the most. We therefore assume there are far too many produced, so we try to reduce them. We know that drones help with ventilation and raising the temperature of the brood nest. I suspect there are other tasks they perform.
Nature, of course, knows far more than we do. Perhaps bees produce far more drones than are needed, so the strong colonies can put out more drones, allowing their genes to have a greater chance of success.
I have taken many wild colonies out of trees and buildings and there are two things about drone brood that are fairly consistent. Around 10-15% of the total area of comb is usually drone and it is mainly on the periphery of the nest, rarely towards the top or the centre. We need to remember what happens in a natural nest. It is usually in a tree cavity that is much taller than it is wide. The honey store is above the brood, which moves up and down depending on whether nectar is coming in or not. Drones are most needed when the brood nest is either expanding or when it is at it's maximum size. This is when the drone comb on the periphery comes within the brood area, but when the brood nest is contracting it is moving away from the drone comb at a time when drones aren't needed.
When I started beekeeping in 1963 there were several beekeepers who had drone traps, although I never saw any being used. They were relics of previous times when they were sold by appliance dealers for the removal of drones from colonies. The thinking was that drones didn't do any work, but ate a lot of food, so were surplus to requirements and if you can get rid of them the honey yields would improve. Good sound logic you may think - but it didn't work! Apparently the colonies that were denuded of drones lost morale and produced even less honey. There must be some reason why colonies don't lose morale in the winter when there are no drones.
Beekeepers are used to putting 100% worker foundation in brood boxes, presumably because they always have, without any thought. In fairness many wouldn't be aware of the situation in the wild nest, so will do what is "in the book", or what they are taught. How many times have we heard "get rid of that comb - it's got too much drone in it"? It appears to make sense, but in my view yet another case of beekeeping's false logic.
Bees need to have drone comb, so they replace some of the worker comb with drone. Any area that is damaged will also get repaired with drone comb, then it get's replaced by the beekeeper. I do wonder if the constant comb changes that are performed are good for colonies in this respect. Is it causing a colony stress in the same way that drone trapping did?
For several years now I have tried to reproduce what is in the natural nest by putting one frame of drone comb on the edge of the brood nest, usually 2 or 3 frames in from the outside. This has several benefits including:-
During a food shortage or towards the end of the summer if the queen is likely to still be laying the following spring, the colony reduces the number of drones. This seems to be governed by the shortage of incoming pollen, not stored pollen or nectar. Drones are unable to feed themselves and rely on the nurse bees. The lack of incoming pollen triggers the colony to stop feeding the drones. They become weak so they are unable to resist being ejected from the colony. The absence of a queen will prevent the eviction of drones.