Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The lives of honey bees

Ever since a bee-enthusiast told me a few facts about the lives of honey bees, I've wanted to write about them. If it made sense to describe the behaviour of the honey bee using terms from human sociology, I think something along the lines of 'fascist matriarchy' might be suitable: the queen bee seems to yield a rather authoritarian power, and the males seem to get a rather rough deal.

There are three 'castes' of honey bees in a hive: the queen bee, the worker bee and the drone.

The queen bee: there is only one queen bee in a hive. When she hatches, she will go and kill off all other unhatched or hatched queens, so assuming her right to the throne. Soon after birth, she goes on her one and only ever mating flight, mating with multiple male bees. Her primary purpose in the hive is the lay eggs.

The worker bee: worker bees are all female. They lack the ability to reproduce themselves, and devote their lives to foraging and storing nectar and pollen, cleaning the hive, feeding the male bees and the unhatched eggs, and servicing the queen with all her needs.

The drone: drone bees are the male bees. Their primary purpose is to mate with the queen bee. However, those that are successful unluckily die in the very act. Male bees are the first to be expelled from the hive when winters are harsh and honey reserves are low, left to starve without food.

So why have honey bees evolved to behave in this way that I rather ridiculously call 'fascist matriarchy'? Thanks to evolution, this behaviour must be to their benefit, but I found hard at first to see how.

In the animal kingdom, this type of behaviour is known as 'eusociality'. Eusociality is different to other social systems in the animal kingdom because, in eusocial animals, different castes of the animal perform functions that other castes of the animal cannot perform. Because of this, a single honey bee, whether it be a queen, worker or drone, cannot survive for very long by itself; it needs the rest of its hive to live. Because it is the hive rather than individual that is self-sufficient, such eusocial groups are often referred to as 'super-organisms'.

When considered as a super-organism, the behaviour of the honey bee makes much more sense. Just like organs in a self-sufficient organism, the bees each have different functions in the running of their self-sufficient hive; so, for example, only one female in the whole hive need have reproductive organs, because she reproduces on behalf of the whole hive. Furthermore, since bees do not mate in winter, the drones are of no use to the hive at this time, and are thus expelled in favour of the workers and the queen, needed to care for the hive and produce its next generation.

At the level of the individual, their lives seem starkly different to ours, but at the level of the super-organism, this difference is less stark. I think they're a great example of how varied the workings of the natural world can be, yet how life ultimately works in very similar ways.

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