To be or not to be, that is the question.” I won´t attempt to answer the greatest opening of any soliloquy, but if Hamlet had asked if he wants to be bee, then certainly the answer would be a resounding Yes! That way he would be making honey instead of contemplating suicide. Bees are one of the most organized animals on the face of the earth and they are our visitors on this blog today.
I hope to share some stuff I find very fascinating about bees and their behaviors. Unlike my article on “Praying Mantis” or “Ben the Dolphin”, this will not be an allegory and there will be no cool pictures of insects with glasses. Sorry! However, there will be salsa dance (read: waggle dance).
Bees have a complex social structure and it is no wonder they have become the most researched insect in the world. In order to appreciate the sophistication of their lives, we will try to be(e) in their hives, participate in their election, pay tribute to their queen, go in search for real-estate and finally make some honey! There is also an amazing story at the end of the piece.
First off, let us go through some fundamentals; in a colony of bees, we have a Queen- the one and only, first of her name, etc… Her role is basically to lay eggs. She does not go out to search for flowers, neither does she participate in hive building. She sits all day in the hive. The queen gets fed and taken care of by the worker bees. Workers bees are essentially other female bees, but unlike the queen, they don’t mate or lay eggs. They’re perhaps the most active because they go in search for pollen and nectar, they build the hive etc. Then we have the male bees, namely the drones. The male bees are neither cool nor sophisticated as their collective name might imply. This is a personal opinion though, but I dare you to disagree. The only duty of the drones is essentially to mate with the queen, they don’t go hunting for food and have no stingers (imagine being called a drone and being unable to sting).
The average lifespan of a worker bee born during the summer is about six weeks, and those born in the autumn live for up to six months. The autumn bees are very essential because they hurdle around the queen to make a cluster, thus keep her warm during the cold winter days. The male bees however, live only a couple of weeks (whose drone is this?). They typically die after mating (is this your drone?) or are chased out of the hive when winter approaches (drones are meant to chase other ‘animals’damn it!, but I digress…). This act is necessary to manage the limited honey that have been stored for the winter days. The life expectancy of the Queen-Bee is somewhere from three to five years! Amazing! There is a slight difference in the life expectancy of a bumble bee and a honey bee, however, their social interactions are virtually the same. Here are some examples;
When a bee colony is over-populated, it becomes necessary for the bees to divide such colony, this process is called swarming. But remember, there is only one Queen. So it is imperative to create a new queen from the many eggs the queen has laid. To do this, the worker bees select a couple of fertilized eggs and move them to bigger cells. They then continuously rub the eggs with royal jelly. The royal jelly keeps the eggs well-nourished, allowing faster and bigger growth of the larvae contained within. As soon as a Queen bee reaches maturity and to emerges from an egg, she instinctively goes around the hive to destroy other Queen eggs. She doesn’t like the competition, there can be only one queen. And if two eggs hatch at the same time, they would engage in a battle to the death. And the survivor becomes the queen. All hail the queen. Hail!.
Now that a fresh queen has been throned, the old mama-queen will separate with her workers. The queens have strong pheromones they secrete, this is use to separate their workers from the other. With this, a hive will be split into two factions.
This obviously is an issue for bee farmers, because it will result in a reduction of honey production and the size of the colony. To circumvent this, what some farmers do is open the hive before swarming and cutoff bit from one of the queen’s wing. This makes unable to fly very far when the colony decides to swarm, and the farmer can find the new location relatively easy. This is rather unfortunate because it take a great deal of work for the bees to find a new home as we will see.
Hunt for Real-Estate
You see, bees are very aggressive in their democracy, they don’t take elections lightly. When a colony decides it is time to relocate to a new settlement, they select a few hundred members among them, “the scouts”. Every scout will fly around and look for a high quality, top-notch home for the new colony. Every scout will return to the colony and present their result. They will perform the “waggle dance” in front of the colony. I will explain what a waggle dance is shortly, but enough to say- it is similar to salsa dance.
Every bee will then fly to one real-estate, and then return to the colony, enabling it to compare the new home she had seen, with the others’ waggle dance. The more vivacious the waggle is, the better the home. After every bee has visited a site, they will return and vote in favor of a certain scout. The one with highest bees win and the colony unanimously fly to the new area to build a hive.
What if there is a stalemate? Recently, researchers at Cornell University and University of Sydney reported that in case of a stalemate, the bees challenge each other to a duel. They all waggle fast and elegantly to draw more support for their scout. But from time to time, some bees with stop dancing and go head-to-head. They hit the head of their opponent and release a high-pitched sound. This is called the inhibitory signaling. What this signaling does is virtually intimidate fellow bees to submission. Once a majority is reached, the colony will collectively move to the winning scout’s location, which she had described to them using the waggle dance.
The Waggle Dance
When a bee goes in hunt for nectar, and was lucky to find a sweet flower in a blossoming garden, the selfless worker bee flies back to the colony and explain the potential fortune that awaits them. The bee will describe the location of that flower, with absolute precision, to the colony. The bee does this by catwalking, twerking, shaking behind, dancing. Yes! I found the right word.
The bee dances in front of the colony in a certain fashion to tell the other bees the exact distance, angle, direction and elevation of the flower. The specific movements during the dance are all key. Here are some examples:
By dancing in circular fashion, the bee tells the colony that the location of the flower is very close to the hive. So they don’t need to fly very far.
By dancing in an “8” pattern the bee tells the colony that the flower is far and the straight line in the “8” (waggle run) shows how far the flower is. The dance stage is also important, as the orientation of the “8” dance tells the bees what angle from the sun the new garden is positioned. The bee repeats the dance until every worker understands the exact coordinate of this new garden. Talk of Apple Google Maps. If the bee had encountered a danger such as a hornet in the garden, it will warn the other bees about this during the dance, by head-butting one of them.
This is regarded as the most sophisticated form of communication that a non-human a can do. The waggle dance was decoded by the 1973 Nobel Prize winner in physiology/medicine, he said in his Nobel lecture titled Decoding the language of bee “It is conceivable that some people will not believe such a thing. Personally, I also harbored doubts in the beginning,” But since then, more research has been carried out, and we have a much better understanding of how bees communicate and interact with their environment. Many universities today have dedicated research groups for the study of bees. Some to understand the behavioral ecology, while others aim to increase the honey production.
This leads me to the last part of this article
An Experiment Gone Wrong
In the late 1950s, a Brazilian geneticist by the name Warwick Estevam Kerr was determined to improve his nations honey production. Brazil at that time had imported some European bees from Portugal, but the bees had difficulty in adapting to the tropical weather of Brazil. Kerr then decided with the permission of the Brazilian government to cross-breed the calm and abundant-honey producing European bees with the aggressive and highly adapting African bees. Another motivation to cross-breed with the African bees is because they love procreating (I want to say the African Bees are horny honey bees, but I won’t!)
He imported the African bees in 1956 from South Africa and put them under quarantine along with some European bees where he did the cross-breeding, making a hybrid of these bees. He kept them under surveillance and was expecting to have mutant bees that would be highly adapting to the Brazilian weather, procreative and capable of producing abundant honey. Unfortunately, one day, a technician (some say a lab assistant) forgot to cover the lid of the box housing the bees, allowing twenty-six mutant queen-bees to escape into the wild, accompanied by some of their worker. This was an unmitigated disaster. The mutant bees that escaped have killed over a thousand people and injured a lot more. The problem was that, these hybrid bees happen to be very adapting even to below-freezing temperatures, which wild African bees would not survive. The mutant bees can chase an intruder to almost a kilometre from their hive, and they attack as a single unit until the intruder is dead. By 1990, the mutant bees (now called killer bees) crossed to the United States through the Mexican border (a wall would not have stopped them, just in the case you had that ridiculous thought).
Ever since, the mutant bees have moved through Northern America and have killed people. They are believed to have gotten more aggressive and vicious in their assault.
Entomologists in Texas are working hard to stop the spread of the Africanized bees, by setting traps along the highways, over 1,200 traps have been put as at 2018. Another attempt to mitigate the disaster caused by this sci-fi-like horror story has been to insert the sperm of European honey bee into the queen of an Africanized queen and release her into the wild, the scientists hope this will reduce the aggressiveness of her new offspring.
One last thing before we wrap up, Warwick Kerr died last year in September, just 6 days after celebrating his 96th birthday). He devoted his life with the intent of helping his country but, unfortunately, an experiment went wrong and had his name tainted.
Just like we started, I will like to end with something from William Shakespeare, who surprisingly enough, has a lot to say about bees.
This is from Henry V, William Shakespeare, [I, 2, Archbishop of Canterbury]
~ ~ ~
Therefore doth heaven divide
The state of man in divers functions,
Setting endeavour in continual motion;
To which is fixed, as an aim or butt,
Obedience: for so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor;
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.
~ ~ ~
I would like to thank Prof. Nieh and his lab at University of California San Diego, for the cool pictures.