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With less than a one percent chance of successful reproduction, and a percent chance of dying after mating, male honeybees have it tough. But recent evidence suggests that human activity—including land development, electromagnetic pollution, and use of neonicotinoid pesticides—is making it even harder for honeybees to reproduce, to the peril of the species.

Every spring these males, also known as drones, fly out to congregation areas, mid-air ballrooms where thousands of young bees gather from miles around to show their stuff. Each seeks to mate with a virgin queen, a week-old female destined from birth to found her own hive. Queens can lay 2, eggs on a good day.

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Each queen will mate with about twelve of her suitors, fewer than one percent of the males in attendance. The surviving bachelors buzz from one congregation area to another until they die at about six weeks of age—or until the arrival of fall, when resources grow scarce and worker bees decide to permanently evict their deadweight brothers.

Drone corpses litter the ground outside the hive.

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Now, agricultural pesticides could be making this seemingly bleak life even more difficult. During her nuptial flights, the honeybee queen accumulates sperm in a special chamber in her abdomen called the spermatheca. Bayer, the top producer of neonicotiniods, maintains that the pesticides pose no threat to honeybees when applied to crops properly, says Utz Klagesthe company's head of external communications.

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Use of neonicotinoids has been curtailed in some places: The European Union implemented a full ban on three of these chemicals in earlyand Canada is working to phase them out. Replacements for these pesticides could pose problems as well. A study published last month in Nature found that bumblebee colonies exposed to sulfoxaflor, the pesticide likely to replace neonicotinoids, produced on average 54 percent fewer reproductive bees.

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To survive long enough to even have a shot at mating, drones rely on "pollen room service" from their tireless sisters. But between industrial cornfields and sprawling urban landscapes, a good flower can be hard to find.

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Honeybee hives with unfarmed grasslands in their backyard—think flowering meadows—fare much better than hives surrounded by corn or soybean farms, according to a recent study conducted by the U. Geological Service. After examining honeybee colonies in the Great Plains, the federal scientists determined that hives in the best areas had bigger summer baby booms—on average producing 2, to 4, more offspring than hives in the worst neighbourhoods.

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Beyond shrinking the overall dating pool, bad nutrition means each individual drone has less game. A poor diet can make for a generation of shrimpy, sluggish drones with no chance of mating. Studies since the s have demonstrated that honeybees can use magnetic fields to orient themselves in space, and more recent experiments link electric fields to everything from flower selection to rituals like the famous waggle dance. So it might be that honeybees are attracted to a special electromagnetic ature in congregation areas.

Shepherd and a team at the University of Southampton conducted early-stage experiments examining the possible effect of power lines on honeybee learning, memory, and movement. Thepublished this summer in Scientific Reportsare worrisome. Honeybees exposed to low frequency electromagnetic fields like those emitted by power lines were less effective foragers and flew more erratically. Though Shepherd cautions that these findings are far from conclusive, they indicate that electromagnetic pollution from humans could make it harder for bees leaving the hive.

Entomologists are increasingly looking to drones to help explain the impacts of various environmental stressors on honeybee colonies. Though he may not hold on to his endophallus, the drone may hold the secrets to saving the honeybee.

It would also help, of course, if humans could be better wingmen. National Geographic National Geographic. By Elizabeth Anne Brown. Published 12 SeptBST. This female worker bee Apis mellifera will never reproduce, but at least she's alive. Sex is fatal to her male counterparts.

Pesticide Problems Now, agricultural pesticides could be making this seemingly bleak life even more difficult. Good Flowers Are Hard to Find To survive long enough to even have a shot at mating, drones rely on "pollen room service" from their tireless sisters. Male honey bees like this drone have about a 0. The lucky few that do must leave behind their endophallus, the equivalent of a penis, which ultimately kills the drone.

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This honey bee queen Apis mellifera lays about 2, eggs daily. While daughters like the retinue of workers surrounding her have fathers, sons develop from unfertilised eggs. To the queen's left, white larvae rest at the bottom of individual cells.

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