Germ line transposition rates of the retrotransposon copia were directly measured in males and females of an inbred Drosophila melanogaster line, 2b3, which is highly polymorphic for copia insertion sites. The elevated germ line transposition rate of copia in this line (3-8 x 10(-3) per generation per element) is confined to males, with transposition in females being undetectable under the conditions of the experiment but at most 50-fold lower than the rate for males. To determine the molecular basis of this effect, copia RNA levels were measured in whole bodies and germ lines of male and female flies of both the unstable 2b3 line and a stable line, Oregon RC-iso, which shows normal rates of copia transposition. Both male and female 2b3 flies contain much more copia RNA than flies of the stable line. However, 2b3 male germinal tissues contain much higher levels of copia RNA than the equivalent female tissues. The highest copia expression is detected in maturing primary spermatocytes. Our data show that high rates of germ line copia transposition are restricted to males by tissue-specific control of RNA levels and suggest that transposition of copia only occurs in fly tissues containing more than a relatively high threshold level of copia RNA.