Life in a hive means working together
Without pollinators such as bees, there would be no chocolate, coffee or milk.
Mike Szydlowski CPS Science Coordinator Apr 5, 2017
Bees are not one of those insects that we tend to grow up loving. Their buzz gave us fair warning that we better get out of the way to avoid their painful sting. However, most now realize that while the sting can hurt, bees are in a class of insects that are critically important to life as we know it. So much of what you eat requires pollination and bees do a lot of pollinating. There are other insects that pollinate but this story is going to focus on the incredible biology and social workings of the honeybee.
Many people would probably be surprised to learn that the honeybee is not native to North America. It is believed that the first honeybee species entered North America in 1622 as it was brought over by European settlers. The bee was very successful in its new home as the flowers and ecosystem was very similar to its native land. Native Americans called this bee “white man’s fly” as this particular honeybee species was somewhat of a nuisance with its frequent stinging. Over time, different species of honeybee has been introduced to get us to what we have today.
There are quite a few insects that live in groups but to be considered a “social species” the species has to do the following things:
•Cooperative care of young — The females share the raising of all young, not just their own.
•Reproductive division of labor — Not all females reproduce, some are designed just to help.
•Overlapping generations — some offspring stay to help their parents with reproduction.
Honeybees are a perfect example of a true social insect as they do all three of the above. Ants, termites, some wasps and even a couple rat species live in true social colonies. Many other species do live in groups but they do not behave or interact in the same way as the true social species described here.
Imagine for a second that your brother was born with a special built in sack in his body that allowed him to carry food home to the rest of the family. You don’t have that food-carrying sack, but you do have the ability to fertilize eggs and make them male or female — whatever you decide. Your other sibling has the ability to help pass on the family’s genetic material, but you will kick them out of your house in the winter to freeze. While this all seems strange, it is very similar (if not stranger) than everyday life in a honeybee hive. Not all individuals born to the same queen are built this same and this is what is so fascinating about the species.
Worker Bees — Most bees are born as worker bees. All worker bees are female and they spend their entire lives taking care of business in and around the hive. Worker bees will take care of the queen, build the nests, take care of the young, find and deliver food, and defend the nest. If you are ever stung by a bee you have been stung by a female worker bee. They are the only honeybees with stingers. The workers have a specials separate stomach just for carrying honey and a special sac for carrying pollen.
Drones — Drones are all male and their only job is to mate with the queen. That is literally all they are designed to do. Drones will not sting you because they don’t have stingers. They don’t really need them as they are not designed to protect the hive. The colony will then kick out all of the drones in winter so it is a thankless job.
The Queen — The queen is the second type of female. A queen starts out as a normal egg. But if the worker bees decide to turn that particular egg into a queen they feed it a constant diet of “royal jelly.” This special nutrient turns the normal larvae into a much larger and complex queen bee. The queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day. She mates with quite a few drones and then stores their genetic material in her body. As she lays each egg, the queen will either fertilize the egg to make a female or will skip fertilization to make a male.
As the queen starts to age she loses her ability to control her fertilizations so more bees start coming out males than females (and it is supposed to be the other way around). Worker bees will start to notice this and will secretly add some royal jelly to a few new cells to create new queens. The first queen that comes out of her cell will kill the other developing queens then will go and take out the old queen. The hive will then continue on under the new leadership. And we humans thought we were complex!
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