It's often mistaken for a honey bee. Hey, isn't every floral visitor a bee? No, not by a long shot. One's a fly and one's a bee.
That came to mind last weekend when we saw a large number of honey bees (Apis mellifera) and drone flies (Eristalis tenax) nectaring on Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). The feeding frenzy brought back all the Internet images of mistaken identities. And the arguments.
That's a bee!
No, it's not. It's a fly.
That's no fly. That's a bee.
It's a fly. Bee-lieve me!
To the untrained eye, they look alike at first glance. They're both insects, they're about the same size, and they're both pollinators.
The drone fly, though, in its immature stage is a rat-tailed maggot that lives in drainage ditches, hangs out around manure piles and sewage, and its idea of a pool party is water that is badly polluted.
Honey bees gather nectar and pollen (and water and propolis) for their colonies. Nectar is their carbohydrate and pollen is their protein.
Drone flies mimic bees in color, size and nectaring behavior. They're actually hover flies, members of the family Syrphidae. Watch them hover over flowers like a helicopter.
Lately, we've been seeing an influx of drone flies in our little pollinator garden. Look closely at their large eyes and stubby antennae and you can easily distinguish them from honey bees. Then notice the "H" on their abdomen. Maybe that's "H" for hello? Or "H" for Halloween? Or, or "H" as in "Hey, I'm not a bee! I just mimic a bee so you'll think I'll sting you."
They're bluffing. Drone flies don't sting.
That is, honey bees heading home to their colony.
Many beekeepers, especially beginning beekeepers, like to watch their worker bees--they call them "my girls"--come home. They're loaded with pollen this time of year. Depending on the floral source, it may be yellow, red, white, blue, red or colors in between.
Below, the girls are heading home to a bee observation hive located inside the conference room of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
They're bringing in food for the colony: pollen and nectar. They also collect water and propolis (plant resin). This is a matriarchal society where females do all the work in the hive. The worker bees--aptly named--serve as nurse maids, nannies, royal attendants, builders, architects, foragers, dancers, honey tenders, pollen packers, propolis or "glue specialists," air conditioning and/or heating technicians, guards and undertakers.
The glassed-in bee observation hive is indeed a popular and educational attraction to watch the queen lay eggs (she'll lay about 2000 eggs a day during peak season), the comb construction, honey production, pollen storage and all the other activities. The sisters feed the colony, including the queen and their brothers (drones). A drone's responsibility is solely reproduction, and that takes place in mid-air when a virgin queen takes her maiden flight. After mating, he dies. Done. That's it.
Meanwhile, life continues inside the hive.
Beekeepers sometimes see a white-eyed drone in their hives--a genetic mutation.
All drones (male) honey bees, have these spectacular wrap-around eyes that are perfect for finding a virgin queen on her maiden flight. After all, the drone's sole purpose is to mate with a queen and then die. So, every afternoon in spring and summer, weather permitting, the drones fly from their individual colonies and gather in a drone congregation area and wait for a virgin queen to fly by. The queen will mate with 12 to 25 or so drones in in mid-air, some 20 to 50 feet above the ground. The drones immediately die after mating ("they die with a smile on their face" as beekeepers say). The queen bee? She returns to her hive to lay eggs for the rest of her life. She'll lay as many as 2000 eggs a day in peak season.
Life will be different for this white-eyed drone (below), a Caucasian (dark bee) at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis. Note that this is the same race that the European colonists brought to America beginning in the 1622. If the color looks unfamiliar, that's because today the most common bee in the United States is the Italian or honey-colored bee, not the Caucasian.
But, back to the white-eyed drone. Like other drones, he will be fed by his sisters, the worker bees. No reproduction for him, though. No gathering in the drone congregation area. No waiting for a queen.
All white-eyed drones are blind.
If you're looking for something to do tomorrow (Saturday, April 16), it's UC Davis Picnic Day, a campuswide annual event.
Over at Briggs Hall, Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology Department faculty will be offering a taste of honey to visitors. Actually, more than one taste of honey. First, there's the honey derived from orange blossoms, clover, cotton, starthistle and other plants that you can sample. And then there's the taste of honey via samples of Gimbal's Fine Candies, San Francisco. The company donates funds to UC Davis for honey bee research.
Honey tasting time: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The place: Briggs Hall courtyard. Cost: Free!
News flash: Mussen will be wearing his "Show Me the Honey" t-shirt.
Human beings aren't the only ones who love honey. Drones (male bees) do, too.
Today bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey was conducting a class at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road when a few drones escaped.
Several wound up by a window, and someone (yours truly) offered them a taste of honey. You think drones are fed only by their sisters, the worker bees? No. They can sip honey, too.
Drones have no stingers, so they can't sting. In fact, their sole purpose in life is to mate with the virgin queen bee on her maiden flight. After mating, the drones die. If they don't mate, they won't survive the winter. Their sisters, the worker bees, kick them out of the hive in the fall to conserve the precious food resources.
But it was "all hail the drones" during a recent field trip by half-a-dozen second graders from the Grace Valley Christian Academy, Davis.
Before the tour, Elizabeth Frost, staff research associate and beekeeper at the facility, opened the hives and collected a handful of drones.
When the second graders arrived, Frost invited them to "touch and hold the drones." The drones felt warm and fuzzy.
And that's exactly how the young visitors felt about the tour.
To show their appreciation, the second graders crafted a clever "thank you" card for her. The outside of the card depicted the outside of a bee hive. The inside: colorful bees!
"Thank you, Elizabeth," the inscription read. "The students talked about the drones and beekeeper outfits for days. Your hard work was appreciated."
That's one lesson that won't be forgotten. thanks to an enterprising UC Davis beekeeper and a handful of drones.