bee biology

All buzz, no bite: the fascinating truth about male bees


We frequently hear that honey bee drones don’t sting. This is true. But no male bees or male wasps sting because they don’t have stingers.

Stingers are a female thing

As it turns out, the stinger is a modified ovipositor. An ovipositor is an egg-laying organ that transmits an egg from the female ovary to its final resting place, which may be a waxen cell, a pollen ball, or in the case of wasps, inside another animal or plant. Injecting eggs into the inside of an organism required a long, slender, needle-like appendage.

In the distant past, wasps that needed to subdue the host into which they laid their eggs were aided by chemicals they injected along with the eggs. Later, these chemicals evolved into venom that could also be used for defense.

In an interesting twist of evolution, a queen honey bee has a usable stinger but her eggs are no longer laid through the ovipositor. Instead, her eggs are placed into the brood cell directly from the vagina.

No egg-laying means no stinger

Since males don’t have any eggs to lay, they don’t have an ovipositor, and without an ovipositor, they don’t have a stinger. To make up for this lack of armor, some bees have a barbed abdomen which they can use to fight off other bees.

A common example is the European wool carder which has three dagger-like points that it uses to defend its territory from other bees. The males circle their favorite plants and aggressively chase away any unwanted visitors.

The characteristics of a male bee

Because they are all so different, it’s hard to make general statements about male bees. However, a few rules hold up most of the time:

  • Like all male Hymenoptera, male bees are haploid, meaning they have only one set of chromosomes. Normally, fertilized eggs become female and unfertilized eggs become male. However, if an egg is homozygous at the sex locus, meaning there are two identical alleles at the sex locus, the bee becomes a diploid male and usually does not survive.

  • After emergence, most male bees do not re-enter the nest where they developed. Instead, they stay outside and sleep on a flower in a protected place. Exceptions include the honey bee drone, which is allowed back in until the approach of fall.

  • Males have more body segments than females.

  • Males have more antenna segments than females.

  • Most male bees can mate many times, except for bees in the tribes Meliponini and Apini, which lose all or part of their genitalia during mating.

  • Many males have colorful patches on their faces. If a female of the same species also has color on her face, the male face will be more striking in appearance. In many ways, male bees are like male birds, showy and ostentatious.

Among species, male bees show more differences than similarities

On the other hand, the differences in male bees from species to species are many, encompassing behavior, morphology, and appearance.

Honey bee drones are known for congregating in mating areas known as drone congregation areas. These areas are high in the air and often reappear in the same place year after year. Some bee species gather in similar groups, except the gathering occurs not in the air but in flowers. These groups are called leks and are very similar to sports bars.

But not all male bees gather in groups. Some just peruse the nesting areas near where they were born and wait for females to appear from their nests. Some males even dig down into the ground, intercepting females on their way out.

The size of males differs as well.  In some species, the males are larger than their female counterparts and in others, they are smaller. The size of males can vary within the species as well. In his book, The Bees of the World, Michener writes that within a species the larger males are more apt to cruise the nesting area looking for females, while the smaller males are more likely to look for females on flowers.

You can often distinguish the sexes by behavior

On the wing, it is hard to tell one sex from another. But if you watch bees frequently, you may be able to see them mating (an excellent clue as to who is who), or you may see the bright colors on the face of a male.

The males drink nectar from flowers, but their visits are usually very short. They do not collect pollen deliberately and have no corbiculae or scopae on their legs, abdomen, or thorax. The males may nevertheless be dusted with pollen, and for that reason, some of them make good pollinators.

Honey Bee Suite

These male Melissodes are sleeping head-down in a thistle. Most males may not re-enter the nest once they leave. © Rusty Burlew.
The spines on the abdomen of this male European wool carder bee are used to fend off intruders that breach his territory. © Rusty Burlew.
One day last week I found a pile of four drones on a landing board, all were dead with their genitalia exposed. I wonder what that’s all about. © Rusty Burlew.

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.

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  • What are the little brown things on the end of the penis? Mites, or part of the general equipment?

  • “drone congregation areas. These areas are high in the air and often reform in the same place year after year”

    Do you have any idea why this is so? Since no drones from one season survive to communicate with the next, how do these drones know where to go?

    • Marian,

      That’s the question, isn’t it? There are many theories ranging from magnetic fields to topographic features, but I don’t think anyone actually knows. The monarch butterflies return to their overwintering grounds every year, even though the ones that leave are not the ones that return. I believe there are something like four generations of monarchs in between leaving and returning.

  • It’s just nature:

    – males will do a lot of stupid things, almost anything in pursuit of the female
    – females are totally in charge of everything (don’t kid yourself boys)
    – females keep us around as long as it fits their purpose, (see last bullet) until fall…

    Dang, it’s cold out here, huddle up brothers.

  • That last picture, the dead drone with exposed genitalia… do you think he caught up with a virgin queen just as she left the hive, or do you think he mated elsewhere and somehow made it home to die? Do they sometimes regain consciousness after mating?

    I saw this on one of my hives last year.

    • Sean,

      Honey bees will only mate in a drone congregation area, not anywhere near the hive. They die immediately after mating because their genitalia get pulled from their body. This male died for some other reason.

      • I’ve never been in a mating yard, but Randy Oliver mentioned that a whole gaggle of drones will appear from nowhere and start pursuing a virgin queen as soon as she’s airborne, before she even reaches the DCA. Not sure, but I think maybe some might catch up and mate before they all get there. I saw a video of drones mating with a queen who was most definitely not in a DCA, since she was affixed to one end of a horizontal rod whose other end was attached to a video camera. The camera was on a machine that was spinning it slowly around. Since the rod was maybe 3 or 4 feet long, the queen was executing a 6 or 8 foot diameter orbit around the camera, below eye level. The purpose of that setup was to keep the queen in the same spot in front of the camera to get a good video. There was a drone comet behind her, and quite a few caught up with her. That is why I wonder…

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