The Plight Of The Male Bee: What Does A Male Bee Do?

Power, murder, betrayal, and money—wait, sorry, honey. If you’re after some drama, look no further than your nearest beehive. Often seen as useful, cuddly creatures, bees are fascinating because many species, including the honey bee, live as social insects, working tirelessly for the survival of the colony.

While these things are all true, there is also a dark underbelly to life in a beehive, with ruthless leaders and unspoken social ranks (unspoken mostly because bees, of course, cannot speak). Bee society has a whole different set of laws than those of human society, and in this article, we will shine a spotlight on the guy who probably gets it the worst: the male bee.

What types of bees are there?

If you were to break open a hive and look inside, you would find three types of bees (all of them very angry with you—we definitely don’t recommend this in real life). First, you would probably spot a worker bee. Worker bees make up about 85% of the hive and are the real-world inspiration for the phrase “busy bee.” The day of a worker bee is filled with tasks like nursing the baby bee larvae, building the waxy honeycomb, repairing the hive, protecting the queen, and going on foraging trips to pack pollen and nectar, which they mix into a delicious concoction known as bee bread (yes, it’s really called that). In fact, if you ever spot a honey bee bum hanging out of a flower, it belongs to a worker bee! What you might not know is that worker bees are all female.

If you were to poke around a hive a little more, you might spot another type of bee: the queen. You’ll be able to identify her because she’s slightly larger than the workers, with a long, pointed abdomen. The queen is the mother of the hive, laying most of the eggs which will become the future colony. At the peak of her fertility, the queen can lay an impressive 3,000 eggs in a single day—that’s more than half her body weight!

Finally, we come to the male bee, given the flattering name of “drones” by bee experts. Drones are more stumpy than the queen bee, with a shorter, fatter abdomen. They also have long legs, though these are hidden by their bee belly (not an official term). They are also missing some key parts that we associate with bees: they don’t have a stinger, so they’re pretty much defenseless, and they don’t have storage on the backs of their legs to collect pollen like a worker bee. They do, however, have massive eyes, and some species even sport a fluffy yellow mustache, which probably explains why the queen finds them cute enough to mate with. Speaking of mating, earning a few seconds to donate semen to the queen is pretty much the drone’s purpose for being alive, and many achieve very little else. So, what exactly is their role?

queen-bee

What does the male bee do?

Drones are born from eggs that were laid by the queen but not fertilized with any male bee sperm. Technically, this means they have a grandfather (through the queen) but no father. Once hatched, the males are fed a high-protein substance called “royal jelly” for a few days and then moved to a diet of bee bread. Bees, unlike their wasp ancestors, are vegetarians, which no doubt adds to their good public image (not to mention the fact that all bee food seems to be named something adorable).

Once they reach sexual maturity, the males are ready for the event of a lifetime: the mating flight. This happens when the queen is ready to leave the hive for the first—and often the only—time. Just before she takes off, she sends out a potent scent, which lets every male bee within a kilometer know she’s ready to go. Then, the race is on! Drones will scramble to chase the queen and deposit their sperm inside her sting chamber. Only 10-20 drones will manage, and these “lucky” few would have out-flown hundreds or thousands of other male bees to succeed. Imagine the surprise of one of these successful drones when, trying to pull away, his sex organs are ripped from his body and he falls to a certain death.

Weaker drones, who did not have the deadly honor of passing on their genes, will try after the flight to return to the hive. As autumn comes and food is more scarce, they are now nothing more than a burden to the colony, and worker bees refuse to share any more honey with them. Weak from starvation, the drones are escorted to the entrance of the hive by worker bee bouncers (again, not a technical term) and kicked out. Sometimes the worker will even chew off the wings or legs of a drone just to make sure he doesn’t try to get back in for some free bee bread.

From birth to death, the average lifespan of the drone is just one or two months, and they will die from either cold, starvation, or having their sex organ forcibly ripped from their bodies. On the bright side, the queen now has a healthy store of sperm which she will use to fertilize some of her eggs to create a new generation of worker bees. In any case, it turns out that if you’re a male bee, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Contributors

  • Dr Emma Clarke
    : Author
    Emma is a recent PhD graduate who loves to write about all things peculiar and wonderful in biology. After spending four years in a lab working with human cells, she has transitioned to a role in science communication. Now she spends her time exploring the extraordinary quirks that are everywhere to be found in the natural world.

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