At the beginning of the year, I wrote about the supercolony found underneath the Claremont Colleges and the vicious Argentine ants that inhabit it. I’m back, with another column about another super neat insect—bees!
Bees are incredibly interesting creatures with complex social structures. A typical honeybee colony consists of three kinds of adult bees: drones, workers, and a queen. Each type of bee performs a distinct task, and the survival of the colony relies on its successful completion.
There is only one queen bee in each colony, easily distinguished by her long body and short wings (relative to the other bees in the colony). Queen bees, unlike workers or drones, have curved and elongated stingers. The queen’s primary task, as the only sexually developed female in the colony, is to produce fertilized and unfertilized eggs. During peak production, queen bees can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day.
The queen is also tasked with the production of pheromones, which function to unify and create a sense of an individual identity—or 'hive mind'—within the colony. Without these pheromones, the most important of which is called “queen substance,” the hive would not be able to function as one coordinated unit.
What happens when other female bees develop in the colony? Most become worker bees—sexually underdeveloped females that perform all labors necessary within the hive, such as polishing or cleaning cells (the hexagonal units seen in honeycomb), caring for the queen, building combs, and guarding and ventilating the hive. Later in their adult lives, worker bees become field bees and forage for nectar and pollen for the hive. Unlike the queen, who can live for up to five years, worker bees only live for six weeks.
There are, however, distinct cases in which worker bees can develop sexual organs and start laying unfertilized eggs. Normally, sexual development is inhibited by the presence of the queen’s pheromones. But if the queen dies or is lost, the worker bees will enter an emergency state, developing sexual organs and producing emergency queens. In other situations, the queen has not yet died but is beginning to fail as the result of old age or has poor genetic makeup resulting in weak pheromones. The weakened presence of queen substance allows worker bees to develop and prepare to raise a new queen. This period is called supersedure. Supersedure queens are more successful than emergency queens, because the former are given more food and longer time to develop
There is one more type of bee found in the colony: the drone. Drones are male bees with the largest heads of all the bees in the colony and have no stingers, pollen baskets, or wax glands. Drones serve the sole purpose of reproducing with the virgin queen. They die instantly upon mating. Because drones eat three times as much food as workers, they are kicked out of the colony during winter and fall, when food resources become scarce, and are left to starve.
What makes the organization of bee colonies so fascinating is their almost human-like complexity. Bees seem to have rules about who is allowed to do what, a class system, a leader, and even multiple contingency plans in case they lose their leader. We as humans have similar structures in place.
But—and this is the coolest part (at least for me)—bees aren’t human. That’s obvious, but what does that mean? It means that bees do not have the human characteristics generally thought to be necessary for such complex group organization—mainly, consciousness. Regardless of what Bee Movie may have taught you, bees cannot sit around a table and discuss the politics of the next queen election. So what, then, leads to the creation of such intricate pro-social organizations? Genetics and chemicals. That’s it. The queen’s genes determine how effective her queen substance is, which prevents the sexual development of worker bees and relegates the workers to performing labor tasks. And the genes of the drones determine their sex and characteristics (such as their lack of stinger), which then determines their reproductive role.
So sure, bee stings can be painful. And sure, the very thought of a bee can send some people running for the hills. But despite their bad reputation, you have to admit it—bees are damn cool.