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April 3, 2023

Drones and Mapping Drone Congregation Areas with Julia Mahood (S5, E42)

Today, we talk with Julia Mahood, a Master Beekeeper in Georgia. Julia is fascinated with drone honey bees and especially Drone Congregation Areas. To find out more about DCA’s, she is on a quest to find as many as she can across her Georgia...

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Today, we talk with Julia Mahood, a Master Beekeeper in Georgia. Julia is fascinated with drone honey bees and especially Drone Congregation Areas. To find out more about DCA’s, she is on a quest to find as many as she can across her Georgia community.

She started by reading all she could find, then went looking using an artificial queen lure on the end of a very tall stick. That didn’t work.

She switched to weather balloons and that much better, so eventually she started using mechanical drones, with cameras and lots of range.

Some of what she’s found so far hasn’t been reported before she started this quest. She’s finding them now and has created an online map so others can contribute – as a citizen science effort to locate as many as possible.

But there’s more. She also works with the Georgia Department of Corrections teaching beekeeping in one of their women’s prisons.

Find out more about Drone Congregation Areas and teaching beekeeping in prisons by listening today!

We hope you enjoy the episode. Leave comments and questions in the Comments Section of the episode's website.

Links and websites mentioned in this podcast: 

Honey Bee Obscura


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Podcast music: Be Strong by Young Presidents; Epilogue by Musicalman; Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus; A Fresh New Start by Pete Morse; Wedding Day by Boomer; Original guitar background instrumental by Jeff Ott

Beekeeping Today Podcast is an audio production of Growing Planet Media, LLC

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S5, E42 – Drones and Mapping Drone Congregation Areas with Julia Mahood


Jeff Ott:From Washington's Capital in the South sound, welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Listener Greeting:OLYMPIA BEEKEEPERS!!

Jeff:All right. Welcome to Beekeeping Today Podcast, your source for beekeeping news, information, and entertainment. I'm Jeff Ott.

Kim Flottum:I'm Kim Flottum.

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Jeff:Thank you, Sherry. A quick shout-out to all of our sponsors whose support allows us to bring you this podcast each week without resorting to a fee-based subscription. We don't want that and we know you don't either. Be sure to check out all of our content on our website. There, you can read up on all our guests. Read our blog on the various aspects and observations about beekeeping, search for, download and listen to over 200 past episodes, read episode transcripts, leave comments and feedback on each show, and check on podcast specials from our sponsors. You can find it all at

We're sure glad you joined the show today and we have a great one lined up for you. Did you notice that opening? If you didn't, stop now and listen to it. We'll be right here when you return, we'll wait. Well, did you like it? Thanks to Olympia Beekeepers for helping with that opening. You too can help open the show and we're asking our listeners. Yes, you, you to help. You're probably thinking, "Well Jeff, how can I help?" I'll tell you it's easy. Just use your cell phone, your computer, your tablet, whatever you listen to the podcast, and record a brief opening message welcoming listeners to the show.

State your name and where you live. Just be creative and have some fun with it. For even more fun, you can even ask your local club or regional club to join you in the opening. Now, that would make it really memorable. Just make sure it's audible. Send your audio file to and listen for it in the next couple of weeks. You may just hear yourself opening the next episode of Beekeeping Today podcast. Kim, we're getting darn close to Easter. It's April, no joke. April 1st was just the other day. How are your bees doing? They're getting set for spring?

Kim:Yes, they are. One colony is doing well, the other one's catching up. It snowed here yesterday, so that should tell you something about the weather. It's been particularly obnoxious this year, I think. I got to think about this for a minute though. I had more time to look outside than I used to when I was going to work every day. You go to work in the morning and what happens outside? Well, if there's snow on the ground at five o'clock when you go outside, I know what happened, but here I can watch it snow during the day and you're more aware of it. I'm not sure if the weather's worse or I'm just more aware of it, but it's been bad this year.

Jeff:Well, it's always bad when you're anxious for nice weather. Spring time's just nerve-wracking for me. Speaking of bad weather though we just received word here in Olympia that everybody who's ordered packages and bees, they're all going to be delayed at least one week, probably two weeks or more, and that's because all our bees come up from California, and of course, those packages, the queens aren't ready. The Queen Yards just are a couple of weeks behind.

Kim:I can believe it.

Jeff:Yes, everything's behind. That's springtime this year. [laughter] Are you seeing any drones yet in your colonies?

Kim:I've seen, you can probably count them on one hand in the hive. I haven't seen any flying, I haven't seen any on the landing board. I've seen a few in the Hive. I don't know if they overwintered, probably not. They're probably this year's, but I didn't see if there's drone boot in there, it was well hidden.

Jeff:On today's show we had coming up, we have Julia Mahood, she's talking about how to find drone congregation areas, DCAs. We can check that out here real soon.

Kim:I spent a lot of time the various places that I've lived looking for DCAs and I found one, one time, actually, somebody pointed it out to me. Maybe I'll get better at it after listening to this.

Jeff:Yes, I'm looking forward to this. I put my drone to good use, my flying drone, not my bee drone. I put it to good use this summer and see if we can find any DCAs in this area. That's coming up, but first, a quick word from our sponsors.

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Jeff:While you're at the strong microbial site, make sure you click on and subscribe to The Hive, the regular newsletter full of interesting beekeeping facts and product updates. Hey, everybody, welcome back to the Beekeeping Today podcast. Sitting across the virtual table right now is Julia Mahood. She is a master beekeeper in Georgia. Julia will tell you what she's talking about here shortly. Welcome, Julia, to the show. What an introduction there.

Julia Mahood:Thank you so much. I'm really excited to be here to talk about drones and drone congregation areas, and how one might find them.

Kim:That's something I need to know. [laughs] I think most beekeepers, they're out there somewhere. I guess if the queen goes out and comes back, that's all I need to know but I'm sure you've got a lot more information than that.

Jeff:We're going to talk a little bit about the hardware drones and the software drones. The drones that come out of your hive and the drones that come from Best Buy. Julia, why don't you explain to our listeners who you are and your background with bees, and then we'll get into the drone topic.

Julia:I am a hobby beekeeper and I'm a master craftsman through the University of Georgia program. I have been keeping bees for, this is my 20th year, so got a little experience under my belt. The way I got interested in the drone congregation areas was at a conference many years ago, and I believe it was Debbie Delaney who was talking about DCAs. It's this mysterious thing, we don't know why the drones go to DCAs. She said that the way people find them is to use a helium balloon and helium weather balloon, walk around and just look to see if drones are flying around them.

I thought, well, that sounds simple enough. I didn't know what a weather balloon was, so I went to Kroger and got a Mylar birthday balloon. I ordered some queen pheromone and I walked around the neighborhood embarrassing my children and looking like a crazy lady. Guess what? It didn't work. The Mylar balloon doesn't work. There's a reason why you use a weather balloon. It took me actually years to finally get a weather balloon, find the right day, right time. I had gone and looked on the Google maps to see where some likely DCA sites might be.

Jeff:Can you tell our listeners what a DCA is?

Julia:A DCA is a drone congregation area. What we know about drones is that they have one job in life, and that is to mate with queens from other colonies. The way they accomplish this is all the mature drones in the hive will leave their hive in the afternoons, and they'll fly to these certain places called drone congregation areas. While they're in these certain places, they are about 20 to 200 meters in diameter. They are flying around looking for queens with which to mate. There will be hundreds if not thousands of drones in these drunk congregation areas at any given time.

A drone has about 30 minutes of fuel in his tank. He sucks up lots of honey and heads out on his way. He's not going to spend a lot of time getting there because he wants more flight time while he is there. Drones tend to go to drone congregation areas closer to their colonies. They fly around, look for a queen of mate with. When they run out of juice, they fly back and suck up more honey. They might go to a different DCA that afternoon. It's like bar hopping.

In any particular DCA, they could go-- you'll see drone-- well, you won't see, but there will be drones from many different colonies. Not just that one colony but many different colonies that are populate the area. The thing about DCAs that is so mysterious is that these sites, these drone congregation areas remain constant year after year. There's a drone congregation area in Sheffield England that has said to have drones in it since 1722.

Now, we know that there's no intergenerational learning between drones. The drones, as most beekeepers know, die out in the winter, so they can't learn these sites and then communicate it to drones. We know that drones don't do dances in the colony, they're not communicating with each other information, but somehow, they mysteriously know to go to these certain places and to these same places year after year. That's what makes it intriguing.

There was a study done where they took drones from several colonies and they marked every single drone with paint, and then overnight, they moved them a couple hundred kilometers away. They had mapped out the DCAs in these areas, so they were waiting. When they were waiting in the DCAs to trap drones and they opened the colonies that they had moved, and within 15 minutes they were trapping drones with the pain on them in the drone congregation areas. Think about that, somehow, they knew mysteriously how to get there within 15 minutes, which is crazy.

Bee mating behavior has been difficult to study because as you all know, bees mate on the wing, flying hundreds of feet in the sky. It's really hard to watch and learn, you cannot force bees to mate in a lab. DCAs are just hard to study because they're so high up and it's difficult to access, I guess is the right way to put it. I started thinking about how to get more information about DCAs and I wanted to know where my DCAs were in my neighborhood.

What you read about DCAs is that they're open areas surrounded by windbreak and that there are often depressions in the landscape, and that windbreak is key. It's something that you'll read over and over again. When I started looking with a helium balloon, because this is before I got to the UAV part, I mapped out, I looked in my neighborhood and saw there was a soccer field, open area windbreak textbook. Another neighbor's backyard has a large backyard. It was lined by a U-shape of trees.

Then there was a parking lot with an apartment building. A tall building can create a wind break. The parking lot was the open area, I got a weather balloon, and I went to these three locations and I had a buddy with me. This really takes two people because you need someone to look with the binoculars and someone to hold the string with the weather balloon. It was very depressing, we didn't find a single bee anywhere. I just went home and thought, "Well, I'll have to keep walking around with this helium balloon because until it runs out."

Helium, if you don't know is actually there's a worldwide helium shortage. It's a finite gas and all the balloons that we've been using over the years to celebrate things have taken its toll. It costs about a hundred bucks to fill up one of these weather balloons. The next morning, I went out to assess the situation and the helium balloon was dead on the ground. That a hundred bucks only got me one day and I didn't find any. I started thinking, "There's got to be a better way."

That's when I got the idea to try to use a mechanical drone to keep things from being terribly confusing, I'll refer to as a UAV for unmanned aerial vehicle. I am not that gadgety person who was just dying for an excuse to spend a bunch of money on a little toy. [laughter] That stuff is just not my jam, but--

Jeff:Both you and Kim are looking at me like that and it's not me.

Julia:It's not you?

Jeff:Yes. [laughs]

Julia:Thank you, must protect too much. There are a lot of beekeepers who are like, ''Oh, this is a great excuse for me to buy that drone I've been wanting.'' Lucky for me, there was a new beekeeper in my club who was a professional drone pilot and we did a trade. I taught him a bit about bees and he taught me how to fly the UAV. I think I came out ahead on the trade, but it was great to have that expert education because it's not a toy. You can make a car because car wrecks, you really have to know what you're doing in order to fly responsibly.

I started out flying my UAV using thin cotton thread, and first, I was looking for queen mandibular pheromone from the research labs, and it's not that easy to find that kind of stuff.

Kim:I'm not sure that you said it, but you have a queen hanging from this balloon, correct? An active unmated queen?

Julia:That's a great question. What I have been using, because active unmated queens are not that easy to come by when you need one, is I've been using queen mandibular pheromone. They sell artificial QMP. It's a product called Temp Queen. The best beekeeping suppliers sell this. It's a little green straw, tiny straw thing. What it's used for is if you have a queenless colony and you've ordered a queen, and you don't want lang workers to develop, you put that in there and the QMP suppresses the workers ovaries from developing.

It is also the sex attractant and it works great. You can keep it in your freezer, it'll last for years. That's what I've been using. I did one spring use, I made a little cage and I used a virgin queen. When I attach it to the UAV, I use thin cotton thread. My mentor taught me that you don't want to use fishing line or something strong because if your lure gets caught on a tree branch, you don't want to crash your expensive UAV, you want to just lose your lure.

The only time it's ever gotten caught in a tree was that poor little virgin queen that I made this little cage and it got caught in the tree. I still feel guilty to this day that she died up there in the treetops for my endeavor. The Temp Queen product works great and it's easy to use. I started out using a Hopkins queen cage that a friend of mine had 3D printed, but you want something that weighs about 10-12 grams. I've found that heavier things that would swing too much and become like a pendulum, and you don't want it so light that it doesn't hang down.

Then you want something that the UAV camera can focus on. The artificial QMP temp queen product is what I use both with the weather balloon and from my UAV, that's what I use.

Kim:How far below the drone does your lure hang? How much space?

Julia:When I first started doing this, I wanted the strength to be long because I was concerned about the propeller wash. It creates a lot of wind and I didn't want to artificially flood the area with QMP and may be create a DCA, which turns out is impossible to do because I tried. What I did was I laid on the driveway and I flew my UAV up very slowly until I didn't feel any wind on my face.

For my particular UAV, that was about 20 feet and they're all different. I try whenever possible to make my string 22 feet. The reason why it's not so much about the propeller blowing anymore, but what I've discovered is the cameras on these UAVs are amazing, and it's really great to have the perspective of not just seeing the lure and the bees trailing around the lure, but what's going on in the broader area. My goal is really to know am I in a DCA? In order to really see that broad view is super helpful.

Jeff:I'll have to ask the geeky question. What UAV are you using?

Julia:Well, my first UAV that I have very sentimental and strong feelings for was a Phantom 4 Pro. I love that UAV because it's one of the big white ones with tall feet on it. It was great because I'm attaching thread to these feet, and thread and propellers are not good friends. You want the thread to be far away from your propellers. My phantom broke last May and it spent several months in the shop, and it basically couldn't be repaired. What I've learned is that people like tiny things, they don't like big things. The design of all the new UAVs is getting smaller and smaller.

They're not making the phantoms anymore, they're making these Mavics that can be folded up and put in your purse or whatever. I've had to adapt. I just purchased a new Mavic that you can get these feet attachments that help it stand up, but what I ended up getting was this device that you put on it, what it's made for is for drops. If you wanted-- I've never gotten an Amazon delivery by drone, but I know that one of the things that people do with UAVs, is they drop stuff. That's what it's made for, but it's basically just this harness thing that has a loop on the bottom.

I'm working on a way to attach the thread so that to keep it farther away from the propellers, but that is certainly a challenge. That's what I'm using now. The minimum requirement for a UAV is you want one with a camera that where you can see on your controller and usually, it's an app on your phone. You want to be able to see it in real time. You don't want to-- I bought a $50 UAV off Amazon just to see, well, what is the lowest end? What could it do? The problem was you could record video of your flight but you couldn't see it in real time.

If you know you're in a DCA, you can stop. If you don't, you want to give it five minutes and move on. That's the minimum requirement. There are UAVs you can get for under $200 that'll do the trick.

Jeff:The sky's the limit, no pun intended from there on. [laughs]

Julia:[laughs] Absolutely.

Kim:I have to throw this in, Julia. A long time ago, a friend of mine was doing basically what you were doing, looking for DCAs using a drone. He said, "Oh, it's quite simple." He says, you get up above 50, 60 feet in the air you're at, aim your camera towards the ground and you will see the sign that says DCA [laughs]. I've never found one. I'm kidding. Of course.

Julia:[Laughs]. Okay,

Jeff:Neon flashing light. On that note, let's take this quick break to hear from our friends at Betterbee. [sound cut]

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Kim:Well, what kind of weight? Want them heavy enough so they don't swing, and not so light that they're all over the place. What kind of weight are you talking hanging down 20 feet from this drone?

Julia:Just about 7 to 10 grams seems to work. I think probably up to 15 grams would be fun, but that's pretty light. One of the things that when I do a talk about this, is I say an easy thing to use is a plastic hair roller. They make these plastic hair rollers that are pretty inexpensive. You just peel off the outer fuzzy part and it makes a big enough tube, and that's got holes through it. There's some airflow and you can attach the Temp Queen with a little zip tie that comes with it.

To get it, I like to get it up to about 8 or 10 grams. In order to do that, you might have to-- you could just put a key chain, key ring on it or a fishing weight or something. I do recommend getting it up to about 7 to 10 grams, which is pretty easy to do, but the hair roller is my go-to. I was doing this talk at a club and there was a woman there who went out to find her DCAs, and she didn't want to buy a bunch of hair rollers she didn't need.

She found a small prescription pill bottle, she drilled some holes in it and that was about the right shape that you can see on the camera and about the right weight too. That's also an option for folks.

Kim:When you're up there, you have found a DCA, you found one. There are lots of drones and you can see them in real-time on your camera. What behavior goes on? This obviously isn't a queen honeybee.

Julia:Right. At first, I was concerned that I might have to be flying 13 miles an hour like a queen would be in order to, but what happens is if you're in a DCA and there's queen pheromone, the drones are going to go after anything that moves. Some of the older studies you'll read that there were some people who used to just toss a hat up in the air and they would see a comet form and drones chase it once the pheromone is in the air.

What I see is drones trailing each other so they-- it's like, bicyclists drafting off each other. Also, this is a little bit sad, but the drones are also attracted to the UAV and that's something I've been trying to investigate. What is it about the UAV? They're flying up into this very strong wash and I have to warn listeners that occasionally, there's some bee goo on the UAV, so you might chop one up or a few, but it's not a lot. I am intrigued by that. There's this queen supposedly 20 feet below, why are you flying into this wash? It almost feels like aggressive behavior, defensive behavior.

I'm planning on doing a little thing this spring, where I found a kite that looks like a bird of prey, and I'm going to try to launch the kite in known DCAs where I know that there's big populations and see if there's any interactions. If they're just going for something that might be in the sky. Do they go after birds? We don't know if they go after birds or is it something about the motor of the UAV. There's certainly lots of possibilities but that's what I see. Again, my goal is to just know if I'm in a DCA.

One of the things I would like to point out there's a difference between the flyways, and the flyways are the paths that the drone used to fly from their nest to DCAs and the actual DCA itself. If you look on your-- when the first time I thought I was in a DCA, there were a handful of drones on the lore, maybe 10 or 20. If it's tens of bees, that's really not a DCA, that's a flyway. Still great information to know where you are, can help you. "Oh, I'm on the path to a DCA," but that's not a true DCA. A true DCA is going to have hundreds if not thousands of bees.

What you're seeing is hundreds and if not thousands of bees flying around in the area. Then these trails, you can even the UAV can be standing still and it's still trailing because that pheromone is in the air, and they're flying into and around the lure and the whole area really.

Kim:You just mentioned something that I've heard before. You said there's a comment of drones. I can envision this. There's a bunch that are close to the queen or to your lure, and the further you get away from that lure, the more bees there are attracted to it, and the more volume that they are showing. Is that pretty close?

Julia:That's the idea of a comment that I understand from a mating flight of a queen. With the UAV, I'm stationary. It's blowing a little bit, but it's certainly not going as fast as a queen would be. It's a little bit different. I rarely see full comets. When I have seen a comet, however, I was trapping drones in a DCA and for that purpose, I was using the weather balloon with helium in it because when I tried to tow the trap with my UAV, there were so many drones up near the UAV, that same phenomenon I was just talking about, that not enough of them were getting in the trap quickly enough.

I was using the old helium balloon, and just with my iPhone, I was able to film the activity around the helium balloon. I would see comets of drones swooping around in the area. I don't know what was happening. I might've been observing a queen mating, but I might've just also been observing a dragonfly that went through and the bees are like, "Is that her?" They line up behind her that they quickly form these comets and then they dissipate. It's beautiful to see again, I just have some great video just that I snapped from my cell phone, but I don't see that really looking down from the UAV.

The other thing is the perspective of the UAV camera, while it's super high resolution, you're looking down at landscape. You're looking at grass or trees and it looks a whole lot different with sky in the background. It's a little bit harder to really see. What you're seeing is the movement, if that makes any sense, as opposed to a pretty picture of an exact comet. Does that make sense?

Kim:Makes perfect sense. Earlier, you said that a drone flight, as you said, gas up and then fly for several minutes, stay there for a while and then fly back. We've always heard that when queens go on mating flights, they go further away so that they're not dealing with local drones. How far are the drones going and how far are the queens going?

Julia:That's an excellent question. The actual distance really depends on the density of colonies in the area. If there's really very few colonies, she might have to fly a lot farther and the drones might have to fly farther to be in a well-populated DCA. If there's a lot of colonies in the area, they can go to pretty close. The DCA could be as close as 500 feet or it could be three-quarters of a mile, something like that. It's true that the queens fly farther away. If you think about it, they tend to stay close to home because chances are for an individual drone, he's not going to get lucky the first time he goes out.

We haven't discussed the fact that when a drone does mate with a queen, he dies instantly and he falls to his death. The chances are slim that he's going to get lucky his first time out. If in a DCA, the queen is outnumbered hundreds if not thousands to one and she can mate very quickly. It takes one or two seconds to mate with an individual drone. I'll probably know that well-mated queens are mate with a lot of drones and the colon's going to be much stronger the more drones she mates with.

The books say 12 to 20 drones. Dave Tarp's lab, they dissect queens and find that they've been mated with up to as many as 87 different drones, I think is the highest number I heard. If you think about it, once she gets there, there's hundreds of thousands of drones, it takes one or two seconds. She can easily mate with-- she mates with 60 drones. She's only out a minute of her time. The drones, so she can afford to fly farther away, get her business done and come back.

Whereas the drones have, like I said, have about 30 minutes in their tank. They'll spend 5 or 10 minutes getting there and that way they have more time to fly around before they have to go back home.

Kim:I like your definition of lucky, it-- [laughs] I'm not sure that I would use that term if I were a drone, but I certainly understand what you mean.

Julia:It's worth it.

Kim:[laughs] Then when the drones fly out and they don't mate, and they have to come back, they just in and out, just in, grab a cup full of honey, and back out? Or do they hang around and rest, or?

Julia:No, they're raring to go. It takes about 15 minutes for them to come in, refill their stomach. They're attractive little guys and they have to prep a little bit. They come, everything and they clean themselves. They get all the pollen off or whatever they ran into, they wipe their eyes clean so that they can see really well. It takes 10 to 15 minutes is what I've read before they are ready to go again. They'll keep going all afternoon.

One of the interesting things I found in the Atlanta area is that the drones fly later in the day. If you read the books, they'll say they fly in the afternoon, 12:00 to 3:00 or 1:00 to 4:00, but it really depends on the temperature of the area. It's warmer here, and so they fly later. The most drones fly at the warmest hour of the day, which is about four o'clock in the south.

I was talking to a woman who did drone DCA work at the University of Florida for graduate school, and she was developing these traps to put out to catch drones and DCAs, and she almost gave up on it because she was looking so early in the day. Once she switched to later in the afternoon, she was like, "Oh, this is when they're flying." There's a DCA that's really easy for me to get to and it's very well populated, but if I go at two o'clock, I don't get anything. At three o'clock, it's humming like crazy.

That's one thing I try to tell people, is you want to, if you're going to go look for DCAs, maybe pick a few spots, and depending on your weather, you want to hit the warmest part of the day, but go to one and then maybe pack up, go to another, maybe go to a third, and then circle back around to that first one. I've been in DCAs at seven o'clock at night in the summer when it's still light out then and had lots of activity.

Kim:You mentioned going out there and I guess I've always thought, or I've read in the past, the DCAs tend to be over open fields as opposed to a forest. Is that what you're finding?

Julia:Thank you for bringing that up. That is true. That's what you read, in open areas, roundabout a windbreak. Atlanta is called the city of trees because we have incredible tree canopy here. What I've found is that there are lots of DCAs over tree canopy. When I mentioned my first foray with the weather balloon, I kept going to this soccer field and I kept coming back with the UAV because I'm like, "Gosh, this has got to be a DCA. How can it not be a DCA?"

Just on a lark. I was flying back one day and I thought what about this? It was on the way to the soccer field. I'm just going to look over here because it was there was a hill and then it's stopped at this street. I flew over these people's front yard, which was covered in trees, and man, oh man, it was crazy. It's a boom in DCA all the time, and it's literally a lot and a half from the soccer field. Why is it that they prefer this? I don't know.

Then earlier I mentioned with my weather balloon, I went to a neighbor's backyard that had a bowl shape. I went back over there one day and flew, and the trees on one side of their property that lines this open area, there's a DCA there, but the drones won't come into the art. It's crazy. That's one of the things that you read in literature, there's defined area and they won't go out of their bounds. What I'm finding is that a lot of DCAs are over tree canopy, even when there might be an open area with a windbreak close by, and they also fly really high in the sky.

That windbreak thing doesn't necessarily follow for me because they're just not that low. They'll go away, they'll go up to 400 or 500 feet high and sometimes I have to go up that high to get them on the lure. I think that what happened is because those areas, if you're using a helium balloon, the other method that people use is a pole, they use a long pole and they put the same queen pheromone, and they walk around. Both of those methods you have to have-- you can't survey land over trees. Right.

I think maybe with this method we might find that some of those things just that there are other possibilities, that maybe it's not so true that they need an open area with a windbreak.

Kim:It's interesting. How far above these trees are they about, would you guess?

Julia:Well, I think I remember going up 400 or 500 feet from the ground and a typical hardwood is about 87 feet tall, something like that. They're going pretty darn high. The way I've heard it, I think it was Dr. Taby described it, is they head out on the flyways maybe about 75 feet. Then when they get to the DCA, they spiral upwards looking for queens. In the DCAs, they tend to fly higher than on their way out on the flyways.

Kim:How much wind would it take to not let them fly or to not be able to fly? I got to guess there's a breeze and a half up that high.

Julia:Yes, that's a really great question. What I know is that my UAV cannot handle anything over, I'm not sure what the number is. I think it might be about 15, 20 miles an hour. It will tell you, "Land now, land now, the wind is too strong," and basically won't fly. I don't know that the wind speed that drones are deterred by. I'm not really sure exactly where to find that. I know I looked it up once, but if I could pause you and go find it, I would. I just, I'm not really sure what that number is. [laughs]

Jeff:This is all really interesting and I think I'll use the excuse of finding a local DCA for the drone purchase, but what's the practical reason for that? If I'm not raising queens, is there a practical reason for a DCA?

Julia:I don't know that for a hobbyist how practical a reason it is other than just participating in citizen science. My website project is, it's a website called It is a place where there's-- you can read all about drones, you can read about DCAs, you can read about how to find DCAs using a UAV, and then there's a Google map where people have pinned DCAs that they've found. When you pin a DCA, you fill out this form and you can put as much or as little information as you want, including how many times you've been there, how you found it, what the weather was, what the temperature was.

There's even a way that you can post a link to a YouTube video if you recorded any on your UAV so that people could see what the DCAs look like. My goal with this is to just collect data on DCAs because it's interesting that people, when I used to say I was interested in drones, they'd say, "Well, where are the DCAs?" I've asked other people, "Where is a DCA?" People just don't really know. My idea was if we could collect enough data about locations of DCAs, it might be useful for future research.

Google Maps is coming out with all analyses for things all the time. It might be that we could learn something. What I can say I've learned so far is just that there are a lot of DCAs over tree canopy that contradicts what we previously thought about DCAs. I've been doing a talk about drones for a couple years now and trying to let people know about the DCA project. Then I've reached out to pretty much every drone researcher I have come in contact with and said, "Hey if you know where DCAS are, would you pin them on the map?" People have.

The most of the ones international are researchers who were kind enough to help me out by pinning those. This data about these DCAs is available, anyone can download it at any time. There's no charge for anything. It's all just being put out there. It's my little field of dreams, putting it out there, that maybe we can collect enough information about DCAs that might help some researchers at some point better understand this phenomenon.

Jeff:Well, that really does sound interesting. I'll make sure to add one or two DCAs if I find this summer.

Julia:That would be fabulous.

Jeff:[laughs] Up in the Pacific Northwest,

Julia:If anyone wants to see a video of a DCA from the UAV, the ones that I found in the Atlanta area, you can go to the pen and just hover, and then you can click on it and read the information. I've got YouTube links so that you could look at and see what a DCA looks like.

Jeff:It is a fun website to browse.

Kim:When foragers go out, they're taught where to go by other foragers who've been out, and they're using the direction of the sun and things. How do drones get home after they've been flying around? Is it just sheer memory?

Julia:We know that they don't use the angles of the sun. It's most likely that they use objects in the landscape to orient. Drones are also, you probably know, notorious drifters and they'll go anywhere. People say they drift for miles. I don't know about that. The fascinating thing to me is that colonies welcome drones all the time. They don't care. Bring them in. I just think it's because they're adorable. We don't really know how they do it.

One possibility for both orienting and finding DCAs, there's a researcher named Gerald Loper, who's since retired, but he's still around and he's been tremendously generous with his time to advise me. You probably know him, Kim. He really believes that DCAs happen where there are magnetic anomalies in the earth, so where the magnetic field changes. We know that drones have iron particles in their abdomens and workers do too. Workers will use magnetic fields to help orient when they're deprived of their other senses. That's definitely a possibility both for homing and for finding the DCAs that maybe magnetic fields have something to do with it.

Kim:[music] Well, there you go.



Jeff: Julia, I'm not getting rid of you. You do a lot. The drone and DCA topic is very interesting. I'm keen on it. You also do some other important work there in Georgia with beekeeping, and the prisoners and bees program that you working on. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Julia:Sure, I'd be happy to. The Georgia Beekeepers Association started sponsoring programs in Georgia Prisons in 2015. What happened was in a men's facility in South Georgia, there was a gentleman there who had been a beekeeper on the outside and he wanted to teach a little beekeeping class, and the warden was open to it, so he did. Then it was very successful, but they needed some bees. They reached out to the Georgia Beekeeper Association to see if they could help get them some bees because they didn't have a budget for it.

GBA got Brushing Mountain at the time to donate a bunch of equipment and GBA paid for the shipping, and then some GBA volunteers helped teach those classes at that facility. It went over great and they came back and reported about it a meeting and I said to the guy who was in charge of it at the time, Bear Kelly, who was the president, I was like, "If there's ever a women's facility that wants a beekeeping program, I'd be interested in teaching it."

The next year, the warden at Lee Arrendale State Prison, which is the largest women's prison in Georgia, reached out and said, "We'd like to have beekeeping." I started the program there. This is my eighth year teaching there. Virginia Webb helped for the first few years. Then David Holloman, who's another Georgia Master beekeeper, has been my co-teacher for the past six years, and it's been some amazing work teaching these women about honey bees and how to be beekeepers.

Yes, we have bees on-site. We have anywhere from 6 to 10 hives depending on the fluctuations of beekeeping life. We have gotten the first incarcerated master beekeepers have reached that level. We have four women who have become master beekeepers in this program. I think overall in all the Georgia prisons, we've certified like 135 people. The other programs are in men's facilities, and Jennifer Barry at the University of Georgia is very supportive of these programs, and she's gone out and done the certified level testing in these men's programs.

Then journeymen and master at Arrendale, we have a men's facility that's getting ready to do some testing for journeymen. I hope the guests can catch up with us and we can get a few master beekeepers out of there. It's really a wonderful program and a lot of people talk about reducing recidivism and how that's the goal in any vocational program in prison. I like to think about it a different way. I think we all want to reduce recidivism and that's great.

When I teach a beekeeping class though, I go in there and I tell them, "Look, this isn't like you can get this certificate, be a certified beekeeper and get out and go on LinkedIn, and find a bunch of jobs for beekeeping. That's not how it works. It's not like getting a certificate and welding or woodworking or something else. You can get work as a beekeeper, but most people who really make a living in beekeeping have their own businesses. However, it's a great way to supplement your incomes, a hobby of beekeeper, you can make some money that can really help supplement your income in other ways."

There's a bigger value, in my opinion, and that is contributing to the mental health of these incarcerated individuals. It's not fun to live in prison. I don't think anybody needs to worry that people are having such a great time in prison that they don't want to get out. I think providing something that they can do that is intellectually stimulating, that gives them a connection to nature, that gives them something to care for and care about. They love these bees. I work mostly with women, and women are natural nurturers.

A lot of these women are not with their children. They're separated from their families and they care about these bees. They worry about them if there's a storm coming or something. They don't want them to die. They want to make sure that they're healthy and thriving. Then as a class, it's a different beekeeping as a class because it's not like at my house, I've got my hives, I'm the one responsible, but we can't give each student in a prison a hive to take care of. They have to care for them communally and they have to get along.

There's so many lessons about watching bees and living a healthy life communally, but they have to cooperate, just like the bees have to cooperate, in the classroom, which is also a lovely exercise. There are women who are mentors who do the teaching. We try not to do any of the basic teachings anymore. We like to let the ones who work going for journeymen and masters do the teaching to the new people. It's a lovely program.

I can tell you that I have never felt more appreciated than I have by these beekeepers who are incarcerated. Whether I'm doing testing in a men's facility or working with these women, they are so grateful for this opportunity. They don't expect a lot of bells and whistles, they don't have cell phone-- well, they're not supposed to have cell phones. I think they get in sometimes, when somebody comes as a guest speaker at the class, sometimes they're nervous. I'm like, "Look, these people are not on YouTube and TikTok, they are going to pay attention to you."

It's like going back in time because people aren't distracted by their phones. They're going to pay attention. They're grateful for your information, they're grateful for your interaction. I got to tell you, it's really hard to feel sorry for yourself about anything that's going on in your life when you spend a morning in a prison. It's just an instant reset for me about helping me feel appreciative for the things that I take for granted and enjoy every day.

Jeff:It's wonderful work. There are some beekeepers here and my local club in Olympia, Washington, who work with the local prisons, they find it also very rewarding.

Julia:Yes, the state of Washington has an amazing program. I have a heartwarming prison story, if you want to hear it, that involves Kim.

Jeff:[laughter]. Kim of prison. Yes, let's hear this.

Julia:Okay. Kim, if you'll recall when you were editor of Bee Culture back when the first class of women who became certified and became journeymen, and were going for master's. One of the requirements of becoming a master beekeeper in Georgia is to get an article published in a national beekeeping publication. Kim was the editor of Bee Culture and Jennifer Barry at that time wrote a regular column Jennifer said, "Well, if you all, there was five women if you write your stories up about prison beekeeping and stuff. I will put them in my column and then you will get this credit." Kim was all for it.

They did a lovely job writing up their stories and we had photos of them. One of the women in the class, she's incarcerated because she believed that her ex-husband was abusing their daughter, who was six years old. She took matters into her own hands and she got a gun, and went to his office, and called him on the cell phone, asked him to come outside, and she shot him and killed him. She knew she was going to prison. Before she did it, she got her affairs in order and that was a choice that she made.

Naturally, the daughter was then taken in by the husband's family and the beekeeper mother had no contact with her daughter all of this time. She'd been incarcerated for about 12 years when she was in the beekeeping class at the time of this, what happened. She had had no contact with her daughter at all. It turns out that she gets a call one day that you have a visitor. She wasn't expecting anyone, but she was happy to see anyone who would come see her. She goes to the waiting room and who was there, but her beautiful 18-year-old daughter who was a freshman in college a few hours away and was taking a beekeeping class.

She was excited about beekeeping and learning more and more. She read the Culture magazine and the magazine had just come out, a few weeks before and she knew where her mother was, even though she had no contact with her. She got in her car and drove down, and saw her mother for the first time in 12 years. That started a correspondence and a relationship.

I imagine that many times over the years, she might've wanted to reach out to her mother, but they didn't really have anything in common besides tragedy and abuse. Having beekeeping and that brought them together, was a gift for this beekeeper who became a master beekeeper, that she could not have imagined would come out of that.

Jeff:That's cool. Beekeeping brings everybody together.

Julia:It really does.

Jeff:[laughs] It does. Julia, I don't know where the time's gone, but it's flown by faster than a drone through a DCA.

Julia:[laughs] Nicely done. I like it.

Jeff:That was bad. I'd like to have you back at some point in the future to talk about the prisoner beekeepers' program.

Julia:Yes, that'd be great.

Jeff:I think that is a really worthwhile project and maybe we can talk about how someone can contact their local state corrections office and try to get something started, if it's not already there,

Julia:That'd be great. I would enjoy that.

Jeff:Thanks again, Julia, for being here and look forward to having you back, and we'll talk prisoners and beekeepers, and maybe even more drone stories.

Julia:Thanks so much for having me. It was really fun to be with you guys this afternoon.

Jeff:Are you ready to go out and dust off your drone and fly it to find your local DCA?

Kim:Well, I have a drone. I've never thought about using it to look for a DCA, but spring is coming and I got an empty field across the street. I may have to think about this year.

Jeff:It would be really fascinating to map those, especially if they're constant year after year. I wonder if there'd be a way to measure the size or the population of a DCA year to year to get a feel for the number of bees in the area. If one year you go, it's really big and if a commercial guy didn't drop a bunch of pallets nearby, maybe there's a lot more feral colonies that season. I don't know how you could use that data, but it'd be fascinating.

Kim:The other half of that equation is how did they find it? Because none of them were there last year.

Jeff:That's right. [laughs]

Kim:Does somebody fly up and look down and say, "Yes, I'm here," and spray something and mark the spot and everybody follows him home. I don't know. That's always been interesting to me is year after year, same place and nobody there to show him.

Jeff:Yes, what's the flashy neon sign that's seen only by drones. Well, that now wraps it up for this episode. Before we go, I want to encourage our listeners to rate us Five Stars on Apples podcast wherever you download and stream the show. Even better, write a review and let other beekeepers looking for a new podcast know what you'd like. You can get there directly from our website by clicking on the Reviews along the top of any webpage. We want to thank our regular episode sponsors Global Patties, Strong Microbials, and Betterbee for their longtime support of this podcast.

Thanks to Blue Sky Bee Supply, Fishers Bee Quick and Northern Bee Books for their generous support. Finally, and most importantly, we want to thank you the Beekeeping Today podcast listener for joining us on this show. Feel free to leave us questions and comments at Leave a Comment section under each episode on the website. We'd love to hear from you. Thanks a lot, everybody.


[00:51:11] [END OF AUDIO]

Julia MahoodProfile Photo

Julia Mahood

Master Craftsman Beekeeper

Julia Mahood is a Georgia Master Craftsman Beekeeper who has been keeping bees since 2004. She created the citizen science website to gather data on drone congregation areas. Julia was awarded the Georgia Beekeeper of the year in 2018. A graphic artist, she designed the Georgia “Save the honey bee” license plate. She is passionate about education and teaches beekeeping in Georgia prisons and is active in her local and state bee organizations.