August 28, 2018 In My View

Overestimating Drones: Then and Now

Norman Tabler

The “drone” has long been a popular metaphor in American culture. What if we have been consistently misapplying the term and in the process crediting males with qualities that in reality are restricted to females?


Nearly half a century ago with a new law school diploma in hand, I joined the firm I’ve been associated with ever since. We young associates were single-minded in our desire and effort to make partner. We were quick to judge and label the performance of one another, as the immature and insecure often are. We might label a particularly hard-working colleague a “drone”—someone whose value to the firm lay in the countless hours spent laboring in the firm library. (Do law firms even have libraries now?) 

I’m embarrassed to admit that some time passed before I recognized that our use of the term was hopelessly off base. As a metaphor it was not simply wrong; it was the exact opposite of correct.

The drone we had in mind was a honey bee. The problem is that drones—always male—are far from hard-working. In fact, they are the opposite of hard-working. A drone does no work whatsoever, unless you count mating with the queen bee as work. If we needed a bee metaphor for a hard worker, we should have called the associate a “worker bee” instead of a “drone.” And perhaps it would have occurred to us that worker bees are always female. If so, maybe law firms would have opened their doors to women applicants long before they did.


These days when someone refers to a drone, chances are the reference is to a drone aircraft: a sort of flying robot deployed for an ever-expanding list of useful activities. A camera-bearing drone enables a farmer to survey crops or the park service to search for a missing hiker. 

If a drone is featured on the front page of a newspaper, most likely the article covers the drone’s capacity to deliver a lethal missile in the direction of an enemy. But as in the past, the metaphor is more than a little off-key. A drone bee doesn’t leave the hive and engage in a useful activity. In fact, it never leaves the hive.

And even if it left the hive, a drone would pose no threat to anyone or anything. Why? Because a drone has no stinger. The bees with stingers—stingers that can frighten and hurt those they encounter—are worker bees, not drones. And, yes, they are always female.

The Lesson

If we want to employ a bee metaphor to describe either a hard worker or a useful device, we should refer to female bees. Males—drone bees—are the opposite of hard-working and useful.  And maybe the lesson applies to leadership qualities as well. After all, nobody ever heard of a king bee


Norman G. Tabler, Jr.

Norman G. Tabler, Jr., is a retired partner with Faegre Baker Daniels, where he led the firm’s health law practice. He serves on the editorial advisory boards of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division’s Voice of Experience, the ABA Health Law Section’s The Health Lawyer, and Law360 Health. He is the host of the American Health Lawyers podcast The Lighter Side of Health Law. He was educated at Princeton (A.B.), Yale (M.A.), and Columbia (J.D.). He may be reached at