literary history made male worker bees into drones

More than two thousand years ago, the revered Roman poet Virgil wrote a book about bees. According to Virgil, bees produce “the celestial gift of honey from the air {aërii mellis caelestia dona}.”[1] That’s a lovely figure of high poetry. Honey, sweet and delicious, is well-regarded as a celestial gift. But as meninist literary criticism has established, gender is under everything. According to Virgil, bees peculiarly reproduce to produce honey: “they don’t indulge in sexual union, nor languidly loosen their bodies in love {neque concubitu indulgent, nec corpora segnes / in Venerem solvunt}.” That classical misunderstanding made male worker bees into “drones” for more than two millennia.

Male worker bees engage in sexual work essential for the ongoing production of honey. As is common in gynocentric societies, the queen bee is the central, privileged individual. She is the mother of all the baby bees born in the hive. She mates with many male bees hatefully called “drones.” These drones are more justly regarded as male worker bees. Female workers bees, which are asexual, do a variety of non-sexual tasks. Male worker bees, in contrast, specialize in male sexual work. They fly to male worker bee congregation areas analogous to clubs and bars. When a queen bee appears, male worker bees seek to engage in the strenuous male work of having sex with her. Male worker bees typically die after successfully completing their seminally important work. That sacrificial work has enduring benefits through contributing to the creation of a new generation of honeybees.[2]

face of a male worker bee (drone)

Latin literature following Virgil associated bees with chastity, the Virgin Mary, and the Christian church. The fourth-century bishop Ambrose of Milan associated the bee with virginity. The fifth-century bishop Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna declared:

Let no one wonder if the holy church, which is a virgin mother, produces numerous offspring with heavenly fertility, bears pastors for herself, and begets rectors. For the bee knows no intercourse, is ignorant of unchastity and is set apart from corruption. The bee is a model of modesty, an exemplar of chastity and a symbol of virginity. Like the church, the bee from mere heavenly dew conceives by its mouth, delivers by its mouth, compounds chaste seeds by its mouth, makes leaders for itself by its mouth, and personally generates and produces kings for itself by its mouth.

{ Nemo miretur si sancta ecclesia, si uirgo mater que numerosas suboles caelesti fecunditate diffundet, ipsa sibi pastores generet, pariat ipsa rectores, quando apes concubitus nescia, obscoenitatis ignara, corruptionis expers, ad formam pudicitiae, ad castitatis exemplum, ad uirginitatis insigne, quae solo rore caelesti ore concipit, ore parturit, ore germina casta componit, ore sibi duces format, ore sibi reges ipsa generat et producit }[3]

What about the work of male worker bees? Writing around 1100, the poet, theologian and Christian church official Hildebert of Lavardin represented the Virgin Mary as a bee:

The virgin is a little bee who makes wax and procreates without coitus.

{ Virgo est apicula, quae ceram fabricat, et sine coitu procreavit }[4]

A poem from no later than the middle of the eleventh century depicted a summer scene of fecundity, with an apple tree laden with fruit and many varieties of birds, including the turtledove and nightingale, singing joyfully in accordance with their natures.[5] The Virgin Mary figures as a bird, but a bird like the chaste bee:

None among the birds is like the bee,
who represents the ideal of chastity,
if not she who bore Christ in her womb

{ Nulla inter aues similis est api,
que talem gerit tipum castitatis,
nisi que Christum portauit aluo
inuiolata. }[6]

Birds and bees are thus associated with Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. She is joyful, fecund, and chaste. She is also unique.

male worker bee (drone) embracing a rod

Most women are more joyful and fecund when they benefit from the type of work that male worker bees do. In our ignorant and narrow-minded age, “the birds and the bees” are commonly understood as a euphemism for sex.[7] Few persons understand and appreciate the seminal work of male worker bees, wrongly disparaged as drones. Whenever you hear the gender-effacing phrase “the birds and the bees,” you should sternly declare: “Bees have been a figure of chastity in the long history of systemic oppression of masculine sexuality. Please cease making that micro-aggression against men.”

penis of a male worker bee (drone)

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[1] Virgil, Georgics 4.1, Latin text of Mynors (1969), my English translation, benefiting from a variety of English translations freely available online, including those of A. S. Kline and H. R. Fairclough (1916). The subsequent quote is similarly sourced from Georgics 4.198-9.

[2] On the social organization of honeybee hives, see, e.g. MAAREC (ND) and Mortensen, Smith & Ellis (2019).

[3] Peter Chrysologus, Sermo CXXX bis (ed. A. Olivar, CCSL 24B (Turnhout, 1982), p. 801), as cited by Casiday (2004) p. 11, with my minor changes in the English translation. For Ambrose on bees, see About virgins, three books sent to his sister Marcellina {De virginibus ad Marcellinam sororem sua libri tres} 40 (Chapter 8). The Bible associates honey and honeycomb with love. See Song of Songs 4:1, Psalm 19:9-11, and Psalm 119:103.

[4] Hildebert of Lavardin, For the feast of the purification of Blessed Mary {In festo purificationis Beatae Mariae}, sermon one, PL 171, 611, as cited in Griffiths (2006) pp. 102 and 291, n. 81. Writing later in the twelfth century, Godfried of Babion similarly declared:

The light of the candle designates Christ born from the Virgin… The wax designates Mary’s virginity. The virgin is the little bee that produces the wax.

{ Lumen in candela Christum de Virgine natum designat… Cera virginitatem Mariae designat. Virgo est apicula, quae ceram fabricat }

Godfried of Babion, Sermon on the Feast of the Purification, Latin text and English translation from Schafer (2020) v. 2, p. 419.

Herrad of Landsberg, Abbess of Hohenburg Abbey in eastern France, in her book Garden of Delights {Hortus deliciarum} written about 1180, described herself as “like a little bee inspired by God {quasi apicula Deo inspirante}.” Latin text and English translation from Griffiths (2006). On the literary context of this bee simile, id. Ch. 3, and Casiday (2004).

[5] Godfried of Babio associated the turtledove with chastity: “the turtledove indicates chastity {turtur indicat castitatem}.” Sermon on the Feast of the Purification, Latin text and English translation from Schafer (2020) v. 2, p. 419.

[6] Cambridge Songs {Carmina Cantabrigiensia} 23, “The woods are clothed with tender branches {Vestiunt silve tenera ramorem},” stanza 6, Latin text and English translation from Ziolkowski (1994) pp. 88-9. For a freely available English translation of the full poem, Waddell (1929) p. 143. Some question whether stanza 6 truly belongs with the poem. See, e.g. Bradley (1985). Here’s Patrice Maginnis singing Vestiunt silve.

[7] The phrase “the birds and the bees” as a euphemism for sex seems to have arisen only in the twentieth century. See the responses concerning the origin of “birds and bees” on Stack Exchange, English Language & Usage.

[images] (1) The face of a male worker honeybee (drone). Photo by Sue Boo on June 20, 2014, for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Bee Inventory. (2) Male worker honeybee (drone). Source photo by Guillaume Pelletier in 2017, via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Extended penis of a male worker honeybee (drone). Photo by Michael L. Smith in 2012, via Wikimedia Commons. Male workers bees are friendly and non-threatening. Here’s a video of male worker bee.


Bradley, Dennis R. 1985. “Carmina Cantabrigiensia 23: Vestiunt silve tenera ramorum.” Medium Ævum. 54 (2): 259-265.

Casiday, Augustine. 2004. “St Aldhelm’s bees (De uirginitate prosa cc. IV-VI): some observations on a literary tradition.” Anglo-Saxon England. 33: 1-22.

Griffiths, Fiona J. 2006. The Garden of Delights: reform and renaissance for women in the twelfth century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

MAAREC. ND. “The Colony and Its Organization.” Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium. Online.

Mortensen, Ashley N. , Bryan Smith, and James D. Ellis. 2019. “The Social Organization of Honey Bees.” Publication #ENY-166, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Mynors, R. A. B., ed. 1969. Georgicon libri IV in P. Vergili maronis opera. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schafer, Stuart. 2020. The Dwelling of God: The Theology Behind Marian Ark of the Covenant Typology of the First Millennium. Doctorate in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.), University of Dayton, International Marian Research Institute. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center.

Waddell, Helen. 1929 / rev. 1948. Mediaeval Latin Lyrics. New York: Henry Holt.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

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