Category Archives: scientific prose

The Male of the Species: The Dastardly Deeds of Male Bees

Melissodes, or longhorn bee, male resting on Plantago lanceolata. (c) 2011 MRS

Male insects engage in a variety of elaborate, sometimes touching, courtship behaviors to woo their mates. Some take females out to dinner first. Others perform elaborate dances or displays for the prospective mate.

Not so with bees. They pounce on their mate and, without much ado, engage in copulation. Here’s a quaint little description by Clarence Custer from a 1928 paper published in The Canadian Entomologist, back when such prose was considered suitable for scientific writing:

“Ceaselessy, the males … were darting back and forth. Occasionally, a female circled her way in from the fields, her hind legs bright yellow with their heavy loads of pollen. Then, almost inevitably, the males rushed in on all sides. There was a collision in mid-air and a sudden descent to the ground…”

Gripping, right?

Clearly, these bees are no gentlemen. An extreme case would be the Dawson’s bees in Australia, in which the male bees fight to the death for access to females. In case you missed it, here is some ultraviolent, high-def footage from the BBC documentary, Life, featuring our favorite nature documentary narrator: David Attenborough:

[I am pained to admit that unless I don’t know something about Dawson’s bees specifically, these male bees are not stinging each other to death as our beloved David Attenborough suggests. The bee stinger is a modified structure of the female reproductive system; therefore male bees cannot sting. If you happen to catch one, however, they can and will pretend to sting, and sometimes even pinch you with their external genitalia (rude, I know).]

Why else might males be considered ungentlemanly? Let us count the ways:

1. They Don’t Help Around the House
As I mentioned in my last post, male bees do not help at all with nest construction. This is why they are often visible sleeping in their bachelor pads.

2. They Don’t Bring Home the Bacon
Female bees spend much of their adult lives collecting pollen for their offspring. Since males do not provide for their young, they have no need to carry pollen with them. Therefore, they do not have pollen carrying structures, such as long hairs on the legs, that females have. If you see a large orange or yellow blob on the hind legs or bottom of the abdomen, you are probably looking at a hardworking female and not a barhopping male.

3. Their Straggly, Bearded Appearance

Males are, in general, smaller, longer, and narrower than females. Their antennae are also longer; an extreme example would be the longhorn bee. They are often described as having a rangy, scraggly-looking appearance.
In many cases, males have white faces, known as “beards,” that females lack. For more information, check out this informative post at Anna’s Bee World:

(c) 2009 Gary McDonald

So to illustrate, here are two photos of Melissodes bees, a male and a female.
This first photo on the right is a large, robust bee with short antennae and no beard. Also, please note the fabulous bright orange legwarmers, which are actually long hairs to which pollen is adhering.

This is clearly a female. Now let’s look at the next photo:

It's a Male!

Three strikes means this Melissodes, or longhorn bee, is most definitely a male. (c) 2012 MRS

Now that I’ve trashed the reputation of those ne’er-do-well male bees, maybe I should tell you that they’re certainly not the worse culprits in Insect World. Male bedbugs, for example, engage in “traumatic insemination” in which they puncture the bodies of females and inject sperm directly into their body cavity. And not all male bees have it easy, either. Take male honeybees, for example. Although attended from birth by their sisters, honeybee drones undergo “explosive ejaculation” during mating, which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. You can read more about the “sad plight of the drone bee” at