Honey Bee Values: Diversity
Most people know that the queen is the mother of all the bees in the hive (usually! nothing is every 100% in nature, right?). In English, we call it a “colony,” but other languages use the word “family,” which really is more accurate. One hive of bees is generally a big family with the queen, her daughters, who make up about 90% of the hive and are the worker bees, and 10% her sons, called drones.
The drones are hatched from unfertilized eggs: they have no fathers. No kidding! Their sole role in the hive is to leave the hive every pleasant day and look for virgin queens from other hives to mate with. They die in the act (it’s grisly, don’t ask), but they do succeed in spreading their mother’s genes to the next generation of a colony. But… only part of that other colony.
Here’s a quick primer about honey bee biology: the queen takes one (or a few–remember, nothing is 100% in nature!) mating flights in her life, shortly after she hatches. This is the only time in her life that she will mate. She flies about a mile away from her home to lessen the chance that she will mate with her brothers. She finds (we don’t know how!) the local Drone Congregation Area (DCA, a kind of singles bar for honey bees) where drones are driven crazy by her mandibular secretions. On average, she mates with 13.4 drones–but may mate with up to 45.
Studies have actually been done where a queen was artificially inseminated with the semen of a single drone. Guess what? Even . though the number of sperm should have been adequate, the hives didn’t flourish.
It turns out that the diversity of sperm, the diversity of fathers among the worker bees is not just a good thing, but a necessary thing for the health of the colony. The variety of genes means that some workers excel at some tasks while other workers excel at others. That allows the colony the flexibility to deal with different challenges.
To recap: a successful colony is one that has a variety of genetics, a variety of talents, a variety of strengths. When all the bees are the same, the colony fails.
If you want to know more, check out the book Bee Sex Essentials by Lawrence John Connor. (Not an affiliate link; I just put it in for your convenience.)