The news lately, both locally and at a distance, has been filled with drones. Kristian Sexton of Wellfleet says that he is developing the technology to spot great white sharks in the water using drones. Farmers in western Nebraska and eastern Colorado have been reporting swarms of unidentified drones hovering over their homes and fields at night. “It’s creepy,” said one farmer, quoted in the New York Times. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating.
And then, of course, there was the drone strike, ordered by the U.S. president, that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad last week.
The drones in these stories are powerful, mysterious, threatening, and perhaps heroic. But to me, the drone calls to mind a very different set of associations, because our own local drones are the ones who inhabit the beehives in our yard for a good part of the summer. And they are decidedly fat, oafish, clumsy, and lazy.
The drone, or male honey bee, has just one useful function — to be available, if needed, to impregnate a newly hatched virgin queen. Except for that one potential, though highly unlikely, moment of glory (which also involves, necessarily, his grotesque sexual mutilation and death) the drone is utterly useless. He does no work in the hive or in the field, has no stinger with which to defend himself or his fellow bees, and consumes a disproportionately large amount of the hive’s food supplies.
The worker bees, all female, tolerate these gluttonous lummoxes for as long as they may be needed to fulfill their evolutionary role. But when fall comes and the mating season is over, the drones’ jig is up. The females turn on their brothers and tear them to pieces in what William Longgood, the Truro author of The Queen Must Die (1985), describes as the “kind of epic slaughter relished by poets and savages…. The drones are a pitiful, bedraggled lot, some missing a leg or two; once-resplendent wings and antennae are torn, broken, or missing altogether.”
I have seen this ritual, the famous “massacre of the drones,” and it is a thrilling and sobering sight. The hive, elegantly designed, organized, and managed by females, sees what is necessary to survive the dangers of the coming winter, and acts quickly, forcefully, ruthlessly. “In the morning,” writes Longgood, “the workers pull or push the dead over the edge and go back inside without so much as a backward glance.”
Female workers and voters of the world, take note.