Male honeybees are the millennials of the insect world

by • July 14, 2016 • Personal MusingsComments Off9473

The stereotypical millennial is a self-absorbed narcissist whose sense of entitlement prevents them from contributing to society. While this statement is (probably) a gross over exaggeration for those humans belonging to the much maligned Gen Y, it is an unflinchingly accurate description of the lifestyle of the male honeybee.

A male honeybee (drone)

A male honeybee (drone)

As a first-time beekeeper, I have been confused by the behavior of the clumsy, bloated male honey bees (called drones) in my hive. They appear to spend most of the day standing idly on the honeycomb staring into the middle distance. This apparent millennial-style laziness is, based on my research, not just me misunderstanding drone behavior. Drones are, scientifically speaking, shiftless moochers.

To begin with, drones do not forage for nectar or pollen. In fact, because of their stumpy little tongues and pathetically weak jaws, they couldn’t even reach inside of a flower to drink nectar if they tried. And they can only lap the honey out of a honeycomb cell if it’s filled to the brim. Their daily food rations are typically poured directly into their mouths by the female worker bees .

Drones do not participate in any of the housekeeping duties performed by the workers in the hive. This includes caring for young bees, cleaning debris, building honeycomb, making honey, or defending the hive from invaders. They don’t even have stingers. The worst attack a drone could muster is buzzing loudly at you.

Everything about drones suggests that they are ill-prepared for the real world. They are also notoriously clumsy, with distended abdomens (filled with sperm) and goofy oversized eyes that make them look like Marty Feldman. I once saw a drone spend five minutes struggling to climb a blade of grass near the entrance of my hive. I thought he was dying, but he was just awkward and uncoordinated and only managed to fly away after I picked him up and threw him into the air.

Bottom line: drones are born into a life of privilege. Much like the Kardashians (i.e., the golden calves of the millennial generation), drones’ only claim to fame is that they exist. And yet, much like the Kardashians, they’ve somehow charmed most of (bee) society into catering to their every need. It’s labor intensive to feed and care thousands of apathetic drones which is why hives won’t produce them until they have the resources to care for them.

So if drones are so useless, why do they exist at all?

Well, they do contribute body heat to the colony, which is nice during cold nights. So there’s that. Oh and drones seem to attract varroa mites more than workers, so it’s handy to keep them around as mite-fodder.

And then there’s the sex thing. Drones do come in handy for that. A queen needs to mate with drones in order to fertilize the one million eggs that she might lay during her life. But she doesn’t mate with the drones faffing about inside her own hive. That would be a bit too incestuous. She must leave the hive and find her way to the fabled Drone Congregation Area.

Drone Congregation Area?

Drone Congregation Area?

The Drone Congregation Area (DCA) is the Starbucks of the honeybee world. All drones/millennials end up at the DCA/Starbucks at some point even though nothing of import is likely to happen there. During the height of summer when drones are plentiful, they leave the hive in the early afternoon and fly an average of 1 kilometer away to find the nearest DCA. They use their huge Marty Feldman eyes to spot the DCA, which is an unassuming patch of sky filled with other drones.

Once inside the DCA, a drone will fly lazily around together with 20,000 of his drone buddies from neighboring hives. They’ll spend the entire afternoon buzzing around nonchalantly waiting for something to happen, usually retuning to the hive by dusk without having accomplished anything. Every once in a while, a queen looking to mate will make her way to the DCA and the drones will, perhaps for the first and only time in their entire lives, swing into action. They chase the queen around in a great lumbering mass called a drone comet. Eventually the queen will choose a random drone to mate with. He grabs her and mates with her midflight. The queen does all the flying during this encounter of course; the drone just hangs on as he goes about his business.

And then, with an audible pop, he will ejaculate. The popping sound is created when his genitals tear off inside the queen. The drone then plummets quietly to his death. The queen will mate with (and sex-murder) up to 20 drones during one of these nuptial flights to the DCA before returning to the hive and never again seeking out the carnal attention of a drone. She can store the sperm of her dead mates inside her body for her entire life; about 5 years.

A bit of a bummer for those dead drones to be sure, but at least they get a chance to procreate. It’s the males that never manage to mate a queen that face a far more sinister fate; one that many would wish upon the apathetic millennials in their lives.

As winter approaches and the hive is no longer interested in rearing and mating new queens, the drones become a liability. In order to survive the winter, the colony can’t afford to keep feeding precious honey to a bunch of drones who have, like oh some many millennials living in their parents’ garage loft, sorely outstayed their welcome. The solution is simple: just throw the drones out the front door.

And so, each autumn, the workers round up every last drone and toss them out of the hive. This is the worker-bee equivalent of yelling “cut your hair and get a job” to the millennial holding a selfie-stick. The workers refuse to let them back in and watch dispassionately as the now helpless drones starve to death on their doorstep. Good riddance? Perhaps. But the hive will rear a new generation of drones in the spring. I guess bees – like us smug non-millennials with our Kardashian-bashing – just need somebody to kick around.


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