A queen bee doesn’t look like her daughters or sisters. She is larger, elongated, regal-looking. And it all has to do with her diet.
Bees play several roles throughout their six-week life span, finally graduating to be foragers. As nurse bees, they are in charge of feeding the brood (larvae) a diet of pollen (protein) and royal jelly, a goopy white substance bees secrete from their heads. A larvae being reared for Queenhood, however, is only fed royal jelly, and in copious amounts. Royal jelly consists of nutritious things like fatty acids, vitamin B, and a protein called royalactin. It’s this protein that catalyzes the metamorphosis.
According to Gro Amdam, an entomologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, determining which active components of royal jelly are important for queen bee development “has been kind of a holy grail of insect research for decades.”
Not only is the queen bee bigger with fully developed ovaries—unlike her sterile kin—but she has also been granted a long life. Worker bees live less than two months; the amazing queen can live up to five years—but not anymore, with all the poisons and abuse. (More on that later.)
The queen is a fascinating creature. And now researchers from Penn State, North Carolina State University, and Tel Aviv University have discovered that queen honey bees share a lot more nuanced information through their pheromones than originally believed. They reported their findings in the November 13th issue of PLOS ONE.
“We usually think of animals’ chemical signals (called pheromones) as communication systems that convey only very simple sorts of information,” said Christina Grozinger, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research, Penn State. “As with all of our research studies on honey bees, we find that they have much more sophisticated behaviors than we ever expected. We would not have predicted that the queens were communicating so many different pieces of information through their pheromones, but it is clear that the pheromone ‘language’ of honey bees is very complex!”
Until now, some beekeepers and researchers suspected that queen bees were manipulating workers into serving them. But that is simply foolish anthropomorphism. Instead, queens pass on valuable, honest information about their reproductive status and quality.
In fact the queens are “telling” the workers whether or not they’ve already mated, and whether they’ve been successful. Success is measured in numbers.
Why do the workers care about her sex life?
Because the more promiscuous the queen, the more genetically diverse she is, and the more healthy and productive she’ll be.
When I released Vanishing of the Bees, I began giving talks around the country about the magic of our amazing pollinators and the Colony Collapse Disorder that has been threatening them. Standing before a classroom of troubled, at-risk teens in downtown Los Angeles, I shared details of the queen’s nuptial ceremony with her many mates. I explained how the queen bee lives in the center of the hive for her entire life and prefers darkness, even though she is a creature of the sun. She leaves the colony once, only to mate. On a sunny day she will fly to a drone congregation area, aka DCA, located a few miles away, and, if she’s lucky, she’ll mate with as many as 30 drones.
“The Queen Bee is a ho,” one girl blurted out loud. The classroom laughed.
I tried not to laugh too at the twistedness of it all. Men are viewed as studs, women as sluts.
Let’s reconsider societal attitudes towards women and mating, as an example. Women weren’t always viewed as whores for having multiple lovers. From a genetic point of view, the lure of new partners motivated our ancestors to risk leaving their small hunter-gatherer societies to join other groups, thus avoiding incest and bringing crucial “genetic vigor” to future generations, argues Sex at Dawn, a book about the evolution of human sexuality.
“It’s a mistake to assume that sexual exclusivity is a standard part of all pair bonds.” And that includes humans.
I explained to the kids that just the opposite is true: queen bees are definitely not hos. The queen is sacred and her many mates secure her future. But by then the kids were too busy laughing at the full reveal of the queen’s mating mission: During sex the male drones fall backwards to their deaths.
Pheromones And The Queen Bee
Researchers found that worker bees preferred pheromone extracts of queens that were inseminated with semen rather than saline. They also found that queens inseminated with higher volumes of semen were preferred by worker bees.
As an aside, the study was prompted because many queens now live only for a few months, as opposed to a few years, as a result of systemic pesticides, fungicides, miticides, and beekeepers’ overall complete disrespect for the queen—the mother. (You see, if a queen is not “performing” that well—producing fewer than 2,000 to 2,500 eggs a day—commercial beekeepers may likely “re-queen” her. Does this include a ceremony of sorts? No, it entails killing her with a pinch to the head and replacing her with a “new” queen that is likely to arrive via mail order.)
Meanwhile, we now know the bees themselves are naturally able to detect poorly-mated queens and take steps to remove them. This behavior is called “superseding” and it’s happening unusually often.
When worker bees replace failing queens, it is particularly damaging to commercial beekeepers since it can take up to three weeks for the new queen to begin laying eggs and another three weeks for the new workers to emerge as adults. This reduces the hive (read: workforce) and therefore reduces honey production “and even pollination efficiency,” says Elina Niño, postdoctoral fellow, Penn State.
In addition to signaling queen bee reproductive status and quality, the study concluded that queen bee pheromones regulate how fast workers mature and transition—from taking care of developing larvae to foraging outside the hive, adds Grozinger.
“It is possible that changing the quality of the pheromone could disrupt this and other processes, which could have large-scale effects on colony organization and survival,” she said.
Considering all the tampering in the environment, how can this not negatively affect a hive?
Through funding from the Department of Agriculture, the researchers are beginning to examine the effects of viruses, pesticides and poor nutrition on queen pheromone quality to see if the queen bee also is providing workers with information about her health.
“The more we know about what affects the queen’s health, the better chance we will have of creating high-quality queens and disease-resistant stocks of honey bees,” says Niño.
And yet we already know many ways to help with the queens’ health. We can ask beekeepers to refrain from using chemicals on their own bees, and we can continue to raise awareness to eventually ban the use of systemic pesticides. Finally, Big Agra can reconsider its unsustainable ways of growing food where monocultures only provide one source of protein to bees at any given time, as opposed to the polycuture they are accustomed to when pollinating because, as Michael Pollen says, nature does not put all her eggs in one basket.
Are you a conscientious consumer? This holiday, consider giving the gift of knowledge, sweetness, and skin protection with our Save The Bees Gift Set!
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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