Floreant Drones

Whatever's killing off our bees, it isn't touching our society drones: London private members' clubs are hives of activity

Hard times, these are, for the bee. Mummy bee is drunk on a pesticidal spritzer. Daddy bee is home late because phone signals interfered with his satnav. Mummy doesn’t believe him, and we’re not sure we do either. 

Whatever’s killing off our bees, it isn’t touching our society drones: the Bertie Woosters and Barmy Fotheringay-Phippses, P.G. Wodehouse’s bachelors frittering away the hours at the Drones Club. London private members’ clubs are full to capacity (and the Garrick Club even has its own beehive, producing honey for the members). 

Baulk as no doubt many people do at the absurd capacity of these modern-day drones, judge them by ancient standards and they are at once emasculated. 

The ancient Greeks were familiar with the metaphor of the drone (though “drone” is from Middle English, not Greek). As they defined it, the drone was more than just a frivolous spender — it was someone who enjoys the good life while leeching off others and refusing to work. 

And there is nothing the Greeks despised more than the idle rich. In the seventh century BC, Hesiod, Homer’s near-contemporary, lambasted the drones that acquired their wealth by feeding off the tireless worker bees. Stay-at-home wives were naturally easy prey to the drone sobriquet. Hesiod supposed that they were invented to be a drain on men’s (the worker bees’) resources.

In a colony of bees, the drone’s sole purpose is to ensure it is his sperm, and not that of his rivals, which impregnates the queen bee. The drones that succeed in mating die in the process. Those that don’t, die from starvation when the worker bees stop feeding them.

But from Aristotle to Virgil, the common belief was that bees did not reproduce sexually at all. There were no “birds and bees” for ancient bees. So the bee became a symbol of purity; even the scents of sex were offensive to it. Seen in this light, the drone itself literally serves no purpose.  If we listened to Virgil, we would all be valiant workers instead, nose-diving into battle and safeguarding our homespun values. We would be forming ranks to keep the idle drones away from our industrious hive. We would not all be in this together. But we would also be wholly obedient to a king or autocrat — Virgil’s queen bee was male.

We can at least credit today’s drones with being an improvement on both the ancient and Wodehousian ones. Neither financially nor sexually enervated, most even work. Female drones have even founded their own colonies: earlier this year a women-only private members’ club opened in London, the swanky £5,500 per annum Grace Belgravia, named after the Three Graces of Greek myth. It joins the long-established University Women’s Club in South Audley Street, the hitherto sole survivor of the many women’s clubs that flourished in the 19th century. But as they flock to their own honeyed hives, no doubt new Virgils will follow them, seeking team players in the worker bees’ game of replenishing dwindling stocks. Virgil’s advice requires a slight edit. There is little mileage in shooing the drones away from the big hive when so many have already flown it.

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