WARNING: While I try to keep this blog kid friendly, this post may not be suitable for young ears, unless you’re ready to bring up the talk in a pretty awkward way.
I want to talk a bit about where baby bees come from (hint: it’s not the stork) Assuming that you had the “birds and the bees” talk at some point, you’re probably familiar with how sex works for most species – a male and a female share a special hug and then a baby is born. This applies to honey bees as well, but it starts to get a bit trickier when you go into the details.
Like how bees have three genders instead of the standard two. You also have to consider that bees reproduce on two levels; the organism – the bees that are born every day, and the super organism – the colony as a whole – which divides and splits off to form new colonies in the Spring and Summer.
There’s a heck of a lot of ground to cover, so I’ve broken it down into digestible morsels. (Mmmm, morsels.) In Part One, we’ll learn a little more about what bees have going on down there. In Part Two I’ll tell you a little more about how honey bees get it on, and in Part three, I’ll cover the development of baby bees. I you stick with me all the way to Part Four, I will tell you all about super-organisms, and how colonies reproduce. Without further ado….
Part 1 Boys, Girls, and Confirmed bachelorettes.
Three genders!?!?! It sounds like it can’t be true, and it’s actually… not quite. Technically, there are still the two sexes, but there are two kinds of female bees, for a total of three castes.
There is a single queen bee for every colony (In some odd cases, more than one queen may end up in the same hive, in which case they will fight Highlander style until only one remains.) The queen is the only female in the hive with developed sex organs, and the only female who mates. She only mates for a week or two in her entire life, but in that short span of time, she will get it on with up to 20 males, and she stores all the sperm in a special organ (called a spermatheca) to be used as needed for the rest of her life – which can be up to eight years, but usually it’s closer to three.
After mating, the queen returns to the hive and spends the rest of her life laying eggs to keep the colony strong. Contrary to what many people think, the queen isn’t really a ruler in the hive. Tt’s true that the health of the queen directly affects the health of the colony, if she dies without a successor, the colony dies. She is absolutely the most important individual in the colony, but it’s actually the workers who make most of the big decisions – from where to build a colony, to whether to raise male or female larva. She’s really closer to an overworked housewife than proper royalty, but at least she has a lot of handmaids.
Workers are the other female caste of honey bee. Think of them as tiny Rosie the Riveters. These girls do everything around the hive. From building comb to caring for young and foraging for food, they pretty much run the hive as a collective. The only thing they can’t do is mate. As eggs, workers and queens are the same, but when the egg hatches into a larva, the nurse bees raise them very differently. Queen bees are fed protein rich royal jelly, which helps their ovaries develop, while workers are fed less nutritious brood food. They still grow up big and strong, but their ovaries never develop, and they don’t emit the same hormones as a queen, so they never end up mating and very rarely lay eggs of their own (but it does happen. I’ll tell you all about it some day.)
Drones really only have one purpose in life – to mate with virgin queens. When they are not out trying to pick up fine ladies, they just hang around the hive. The workers do everything for the drones, even feeding and cleaning them. It sounds like a great life, but it comes with some pretty disappointing fine print.
During mating season, there are 1-10 drones for every thousand workers in a hive. This sounds like great odds, but the drones only mate with queens, and for every 60,000 bees, you get one queen. Oh, and remember the queens are only open to mating for 2-3 weeks during their whole lives. Suddenly Donny Drone’s chances are not looking so great.
If they do get lucky enough to get lucky, they die, rather violently (more on that in Part two). Maybe Donny should just stay in, enjoy being pampered by the workers and not bother to mate? That’s a bad plan too, because even if he never mates and thus survives mating season, when winter comes, he will be kicked out of the hive or straight up murdered by the very workers who were so lovingly tending to him mere weeks before. It’s a tough life for those useless boy bees. I imagine honey bees are a favorite of militant feminists.
Ok, so now that we’re all caught up on bees’ genders, we’ll be ready to pick up next time, with “The Birds and the Bees for Bees – Part 2: The Kinky Stuff”
Questions? Stuff to say? Comment below!