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May 11

Inside the Honeybee Hive of Horror

In folklore, the honeybee has been used as an example of perfect social order, co-operation and hard work. But this is not an association of free insects who have agreed to work together out of self-interest. Apart from the queen, every member of the colony is effectively a slave, and their lives are terminated just as soon as they are no longer able to fulfill their roles.

If honeybees had job descriptions of the different roles within their colony, they might look something like this…

Queen

Requirements: Must be born into royalty

Job Description: As the queen, you are the overbearing and often tyrannical ruler of the colony. It is your role to look after tens of thousands of your own offspring and stop them rebelling. When your daughters bring you food, regurgitating it from their stomachs and transferring it from their mouths to yours, you give them some of your spittle in exchange. This contains hormones that prevents the growth of ovaries. So although the workers take the spittle with apparent eagerness, they are actually condemning themselves to a life of slavery and drudgery – which is exactly what you, as the queen, want.

So long as you keep this up, the workers will do their jobs without fuss and they will dutifully look after you. All you need to worry about now is laying eggs to make sure the colony remains at a healthy number – around 1,500 eggs a day ought to do it.

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A queen carniolan bee (in the centre) being attended to by workers. Photo: Waugsberg

Most of the eggs you lay will hatch into more worker slaves, but in late summer you will need to lay fertilised eggs that will hatch into slightly larger daughters. The larvae of these bees need to be fed exclusively on a special substance called ‘royal jelly’ (don’t worry, your workers will do this job for you), which ensures that their sexual organs fully develop. This ensures they will turn into future queens. At the same time, you’ll also want to be laying unfertilised eggs, which will hatch as males, or drones. They will leave the nest and look for new queens to mate with.

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Queen larvae floating on royal jelly in opened queen cups. Photo: Waugsberg

Drone

Requirements: Must be male

Job Description: As a drone, your sole purpose in life will be to mate with young queens and supply them with enough sperm to last them for the rest of their lives. It may sound like the perfect job, but there is a major downside: your genitals will detach from your body as you are mating with the queen with an audible pop. This acts as a cork to keep your sperm inside the queen, and as a chastity belt to prevent other drones from having their way with her. Castrated and wounded, you will fall to the ground and die shortly afterwards.

The race to mate is a frantic one. A young queen will only spend a few days mating before going off to start having half a million children. Even worse, as many as twenty-five thousand males may assemble to contend for a single queen. A queen won’t mate much more than twenty times, so the vast majority of males will die as virgins. Therefore, any drone that succeeds in mating with a queen has nothing to lose by exploding, since he’d be extremely unlikely to mate again anyway, and everything to gain by stopping other males from mating with her. If you can prevent just one other drone from copulating with the queen, you will fertilise a larger proportion of her eggs, and more of your genes will be passed on to the next generation.

Workers

Requirements: Must have no sexuality whatsoever

Job Description: Being a lowly worker, you will do all of the dull and menial, yet ultimately crucial, tasks within the hive. Your exact role changes as you grow older. During your first three days of adult life, you will be cleaning the honeycomb cells and keeping the recently-laid eggs warm. Days 4 to 6 consist of caring for and feeding older larvae, and another four days acting as nurses to the newly-hatched larvae. Afterwards, you’ll be labouring away to add more hexagonal cells to the combs and then, upon graduating from that, you’ll start receiving pollen and nectar from foraging bees to store within the hive. You’ll then spend the remainder of your life – up to six weeks or so – either as guards at the entrance of the colony, or as foragers collecting the pollen and nectar for yourself.

During periods of cold, you are expected to congregate around the queen with others of your kind to maintain a constant temperature, vibrating muscles in your thorax to generate body heat. In warmer times, you must use your wings to cool down the colony, or even bring in water and deposit it in droplets around the cells of the developing larvae, which are particularly sensitive to over-heating.

Towards the end of summer, you may start treating the queen, which you had once doted upon, very differently. You may barge into her and not feed her as attentively as you once did. You may even feel the need to openly rebel against her. This is perfectly natural. Once the queen started laying eggs that will turn into future queens, she also stopped releasing the hormone that previously suppressed your sexuality. Feel free to start laying your own eggs when this happens, but be warned that the queen greatly dislikes this and either she or some of her more saintly workers will actively seek out and destroy them.

Once you and all the other workers realise that your queen is murdering your offspring, anarchy within the colony will inevitably escalate. You may start outright attacking the queen. Often, you may sting her to death. If this happens, you and everyone else will perish shortly afterwards because you will be unable to survive the winter months on your own. Fear not, though, for the future queens you once looked after will by now have hatched, left the hive and mated, ready to hibernate through the winter and start a new colony in the spring. And the political turmoil and rebellions begin again.

1 comment

  1. Luke

    So all bees are pretty much guaranteed to die a horrible death. Depressing.

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