When it comes to honeybees, these industrious insects contribute a lot more to our day-to-day existence than meets the eye. Besides the tasty honeycomb you may be munching on this very moment, did you know that bees also contribute a great deal to our language as well as our environment? Chances are, you’ve probably heard a particularly high-energy person referred to as a “worker bee” or a rank-and-file employee called a “drone” at some point. Both personality terms refer to a specific type of bee within a hive or colony, and together with the queen bee (another popular term!), they create a powerful and intriguing insect community. So what is the difference between a drone bee and a worker bee, anyway—aren’t they just regular bees? Well, not exactly … the truth is a lot more interesting!
Worker Bees: Swarming with Girl Power
Responsible for virtually all of the jobs inside the hive, worker bees are all female and are completely infertile. The queen bee emits a pheromone that inhibits the ovaries from growing, leaving worker bees unable to challenge the queen—the only source of fertilized eggs in a hive—for dominance or control. Instead, these crucial hive-members perform an impressive array of tasks, from building the waxy honeycomb cells, to raising bee eggs and larvae, to defending the hive from intruders.
The only task they share with their male counterparts, drone bees, are temperature regulation for the hive. If the hive becomes too hot or cold to protect and nurture the queen and her eggs, the two types of bees will work together. In an incredible display of coordination, they will all flex their flight muscles to heat up the interior, or move their wings rapidly to fan out hot air from the hive. This keeps the delicate eggs and potential queen cells inside safe from becoming injured or non-viable as they incubate.
Drone Bees: What’s The Buzz?
It takes two to tango, as the saying goes, and as hard as the queen and her worker bees labor to keep the hive running smoothly, male bees are still needed to fertilize the eggs. Without this fertilization, the hive—which can contain up to 50,000 bees—would die out in short order. That’s because bee lifespans are surprisingly short: while the queen is relatively long-lived at up to 5 years, worker bees last an average of 4 to 6 months, and drones a mere 90 days. Without healthy, frequently-replenished egg production, even an impressive volume of bees would be a collapsed colony before very long.
A drone bee is the only type of adult male bee in the hive, and he is entirely reliant on female worker bees to stay fed and alive. Drones do not collect pollen and nectar, nor do they make honey or royal jelly—they must receive all food from their “sisters” to survive. Their sole purpose in their short life is to mate with the queen bee, which they will do in flight, which is why their eyes appear so much larger than a queen or worker bee’s eyes—they need them for flight precision. If they successfully manage to mate with a queen, they’ve done their duty, but will die immediately after. Unfortunately, the anatomy required to transfer their genetic material is connected to their internal organs, which go along part-and-parcel with the—ahem—transfer.
Fun Fact: Dive-Bomb Drones
An interesting fact about drones is that they cannot sting: that’s a defense reserved for the worker bees alone. They may move their bodies in a way to suggest they’ll sting, but this is a deception intended to ward off predators. They’re also known to fly in erratic, “dive bomb”-like patterns to confuse would-be predators attempting to breach a hive—the sound made by their wings is the characteristic low humming that gives these bees their name.
Bee Society: Relentless Efficiency
While each of these two bee types contributes an important, necessary effort to the well-being of the hive, they can also be brutally efficient when need be. If a queen bee stops producing enough fertile eggs or stops laying eggs altogether, both worker and drone will gang up to sting her to death, making room for a new queen to be raised. On the other hand, if a cold winter and lack of vegetation leads to a nectar or honey shortage inside the hive, worker bees will force drones out to freeze and starve in order to ensure the queen and working colony has enough to eat.
While it may seem cruel to an outsider, these sacrifices are necessary for the continued health of a colony. Both worker bees and drone bees are bred for a specific purpose, and the queen and colony rely on them to perform it. So the next time you see a bee collecting pollen from a flower, give her thanks for all of her hard work. While she’s doing it to support the drones and queen inside her hive, in the process she’s ensuring fertile pollination for the plants, fruits, and vegetables that humans rely on to survive.
- Grad, Philip. “Bee Hive Hierarchy And Activities.” Big Island Bees.com, May 19, 2010, https://bigislandbees.com/blogs/bee-blog/14137353-bee-hive-hierarchy-and-activities. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- “The Social Structure of Honey Bees.” Hymenoptera42.wordpress.com, February 15, 2013, https://hymenoptera42.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/the-social-structure-of-honey-bees/. Accessed April 29, 2019.
- “Drone (bee).” Wikipedia.org, (no publish date), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drone_(bee). Accessed April 29, 2019.