Sometimes they make it back home first.
"I have no doubt that the drones perish when they lose their sexual organs after mating. While reflecting one day upon the discovery which is the subject of this letter and upon the impossibility of witnessing a mating which takes place in the air, it seemed to us that one could add another proof to those that we had, if one could find the male which had fecundated one of our queens and catch him on his return; but we could hope for this only in case he did not die suddenly after mating, and if he had time to return to the hive.
"Burnens thought that it would be easy to distinguish such a male from those that die without having mated and without having suffered any mutilation. So he condemned himself to examine, one after another, all the drones that he would find dead near the hives during the swarming season.
"After long and useless researches, he found a few that had died in front of the hives and were evidently mutilated, for they had lost those of the genital parts that remain within the body of the queens. The root of the male organ had protruded out of their body after mating, a piece of this canal ten or twelve lines long (7/8ths in. to one in. or 21 to 25 mm) was hanging at the extremity of their belly and had dried there. None of the parts which pressure may force out showed itself in that case.
"These observations, made with greatest care, confirmed the conjecture which I had already stated, that is: that no other part than the male organ and its appendages extrudes from the body of the male during mating. They proved also that the males perish after having lost their sexual parts, and that their death is not as prompt as one might have expected.
"By coming back to die at the front of the hive, they bring back, as the queen does, the evidence of their union and of a long unknown fact."--Francis Huber, New Observations Upon Bees, Vol I, 2nd Letter