Listen to Isles of Scilly beekeeper Jilly Halliday talking to Paddy O’Connell on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House about the game of drones in action - it's the programme broadcast on 21 August, 2022 and the discussion starts 27 minutes into the programme.   

Honey bee drones (males) are known to drift from one colony to another in their exploration of new areas to mate with queens. But are they sea-faring buccaneers prepared to cross large expanses of water to meet a mate? 

The Isles of Scilly provides an ideal natural laboratory for a ground-breaking study of drone movements. The islands are too far from Cornwall for drones to reach but, with honey bee colonies on five of its islands, the drones might brave a flight across shorter stretches of water in search of a virgin queen.

Honey bee drones mate on the wing, not in a hive, and as many as 15 might mate with a single queen. Island-hopping drones would greatly reduce the risks of inbreeding, so there could well be an evolutionary incentive for drones to be adventurers. 

The Isles of Scilly lie 40km off Land’s End, so mainland bees don’t visit

Map credit: Shutterstock



Distances between the Isles of Scilly vary from 500m to a few kilometres

Map credit: Shutterstock


There are beekeepers on St Agnes, St Mary’s, Bryher, Tresco and St Martin’s, so perhaps the drones from their colonies island-hop. There are occasional anecdotal reports of worker bees (females) being seen flying from one island to another to forage, but are the drones explorers too?

To try to find out, a team from Pollenize, the Wildflower Collective, and BeeCraft came to the islands in July 2022 to work with Jilly Halliday, local beekeepers and students at the Five Islands cademy to find out if the drones are seafarers. It is an exploratory pilot project to help put together a fully- fledged project for 2023.

Marking the drones

Samples of drones from several colonies across the five islands were marked with a colour on their thorax, a different colour for each island – blue for Bryher, orange for St Agnes, red for St Martins, green for St Mary’s and purple for Tresco. It was delicate work, but Pollenize had devised a way to mark lots of drones quickly and the students of the Five Islands Academy gave enthusiastic help.

Then the team had to wait to give the drones a chance to move home. No-one knows how long that takes, just that it does happen. 


Marking drones blue at a hive on Bryher













Five Islands Academy students ready to release some green-marked St Mary’s drones 







One of the St Mary’s marked drones






Discovering where Scilly’s drones congregate

As the team waited for the drones to move around and appear in other hives, members started looking on five of the islands for any drone congregation areas (DCAs) – places away from their hives where drones gather in search of virgin queens. DCAs are mysterious and occur in different types of places across the world. So the team had to work on experience and hunches.

The first DCA search was on St Martin’s on a beautiful day. Hoisting a lure of queen pheromone on the end of an extendable 4m fishing rod, only two drones came to investigate, despite the team wandering across several parts of the island they thought might be suitable for drones.

However, on St Mary’s there was a surprise in store by a monument called The Buzza! In one of the most scenic parts of the island, the drones came to the lure in force. It was a DCA for sure.


Drones chasing the lure held aloft by Jilly Halliday at The Buzza (we still can’t find out why it has that very appropriate name)








The team drew another blank on Bryher, but it was a much cooler day, perhaps too cold for drones to be gathering in hilltop areas where the team were mostly looking.

On a glorious summer Sunday, two members of the team visited the southerly island of St Agnes. Lure aloft, a couple of drones drifted by. Obviously, there was a DCA somewhere nearby, but houses and bracken-filled fields prevented straying from the path to the lighthouse to try to find the DCA. Then, they came across the beekeeper’s house so, hoping to find him in, they went into his garden with the fishing rod lure slung casually over one shoulder. Buzzing was heard – the garden was on the edge of the DCA! With the beekeepers’ son, they explored further and, using the radio-controlled drone, found the core of the DCA high above the pittosporum shelterbelt hedges on the beekeeper’s small farm. The beekeeper had indeed noticed some unexplained bee movements over the years, but never realised he was farming in a DCA.

On Tresco two DCAs were discovered – at either end of the world-famous Tresco Abbey Gardens. A radio-controlled drone with a lure on board attracted lots of drones and Matthew Elmes netted some to see if they were marked. Out of about 150 drones, only two were marked. Both were purple, indicating that they both originated on the island of Tresco. But why were such a huge number unmarked? The team had marked a great many drones in beekeepers’ hives on Tresco, so could the drones be from wild colonies that no-one knew anything about? 

First evidence of drifting

In mid-August the first evidence of drones drifting between hives was discovered at Richard Hobbs’s apiary on Tresco. None of his drones had been marked, but when he and Jilly opened a hive, there was a purple drone. 

We now wait to hear what beekeepers across the other islands find in their hives. 

BeeCraft will cover the intriguing and ground-breaking story in full in a forthcoming issue of the magazine. In September 2021, BeeCraft reported on the highly unusual honeybee environment offered by the islands.

The game of drones is part of the Scillonian Bee Project working with local beekeepers  to develop a sustainable population of honey bees in harmony with other pollinators and the environment on the Isles of Scilly.

See also:

Scilly Bees 




Pollenize CIC 

Wildflower Collective 



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