The Matriarchal Society of Bees
Honeybees are fascinating creatures that have been studied for centuries. While most people are familiar with the role of the queen bee in the colony, many are unaware of the complex matriarchal social structure that exists within bee communities. In fact, the female bees play a dominant role in the colony, with the queen bee serving as the reproductive powerhouse, while the female worker bees take on a variety of roles to ensure the colony's survival.
In this article, we will explore the female-dominated society of bee colonies, including the roles of queen bees, female worker bees, and male drone bees that allow bees to thrive in their environment. Join us as we dive into the fascinating world of bee society and learn more about these amazing creatures.
The Lifespan of a Honeybee
The average lifespan of a Western honey bee varies throughout the year, from only six weeks in the Spring and Summer seasons up to six months in the Winter. While the queen bee who is roughly twice the size of an average worker bee can live up to five years!
The Ratio of Female to Male Bees
Honey bee colonies are made up of approximately 95% females with the number of male bees fluctuating throughout the year.
Male drone bees are not the worker bees. Their main role is to mate with queen bees from surrounding colonies with more males produced during mating season.
In the winter, when there aren't as many resources available to the bees, the female bees will kick all the male bees out of the hive and they'll either starve or freeze to death, as the male bees have no way of forging.
Most people have never even seen a male honey bee before because there just aren’t that many of them and they’re not out in the world doing the work of bees. You will never see them on a flower. Male bees stay in the hive, only leaving to fly to “drone congregation areas” to mate with a queen bee (not their own queen).
The Role of Male Bees
Male bees are easily distinguishable from female worker bees in a colony. They are larger than female bees and are not really doing anything. They tend to walk around differently, generally fumbling and bumbling around.
Male drone bees don't have to do a lot of work in the hive. There is some research that shows drones do contribute to the heating of the hive. But they don't forage for food. They don’t feed the young. They don't build the hive - they don't have wax glands. They don't defend the hive - they don't even have stingers. They really only have one role: to mate with a queen bee.
Bear in mind, male drone bees only make up about 5% of the population, with as many as 10 drones in a colony at any one time and sometimes even non at all!
The Role of Female Bees
The female bees are the worker bees and make up about 95% of the population.
The queen bee has one job which is to lay eggs for the colony. She is essentially the female reproductive organ of this greater being that is the super organism of a bee colony. So when the female worker bees are born, they're the ones doing all the work for the hive.
Female worker bees are unable to mate and cannot lay eggs that have been fertilized - they can only lay eggs that result in male drone bees. So there's no competition between the queen and the worker bees.
About the Birds and the Bees (Mating)
After a queen bee is born and reaches the ripe age of around seven days old, she'll go on a mating flight. She may go on only one, possibly two mating flights in her entire life.
The queen bee will fly out of the hive and go to a “drone congregation area” which is an area of male drone honey bees flying around just waiting for a queen bee to fly by.
These drone congregation areas exist about a hundred feet in the sky and about 500 feet wide of male bees all emitting chemical pheromones to attract all queens within the radius.
When a queen bee flies by, only the fastest and strongest drones win and will get to successfully mate with a queen. And the queen will mate with only 15 to 20 drone bees before she'll have enough sperm to last the rest of her life.
Once a male bee successfully mates with a queen bee, its endo phallus rips out of its abdominal cavity and they fall to the ground and that's the end of its little bee life. So they die during mating!
But his genes are passed on and that is considered a successful male honey bee. Most drones will never mate with a queen.
The Making of a Queen Bee
Female worker bees can only lay male bee eggs. A queen can lay both female and male bee eggs. So only a queen can only give birth to a queen and any of her female bee eggs can be made into a queen bee.
All bees are fed royal jelly in the first three days of their life before they’re switched to a diet of pollen and a little bit of nectar. But if a baby bee is fed royal jelly through the duration of its development, it turns into a queen bee.
Queen Bee Succession
Bee colonies are not a monarchy where the queen is in charge and makes all the decisions. It’s the colony that makes the decisions. It's all the worker bees, the collective hive mind of female worker bees that decides.
They ultimately get to decide to either accept or reject a new queen bee that has been introduced to the hive. This is why it’s sometimes better to give a colony that's queen-less the opportunity to make their own queen from the female egg of the old queen, than introducing a new foreign queen to them.
As mentioned, they can take any female egg and turn it into a queen bee by feeding the larvae a diet of royal jelly. They will also make the cell that the bee is born into a little bit bigger to accommodate the queen bee's larger body size.
The queen bee doesn't always know when she's in her final days, it's the colony that can tell her pheromones are getting weaker and will prepare for having a new queen.
Sometimes a new queen will develop while the old queen is still alive and you have a colony with an older mother queen who is failing and a new daughter queen who just emerged from a cell. In this case, the queens will fight to the death and the best queen wins!
We hope you’ve enjoyed taking this fascinating look into the secret life of bees with us! Nature can certainly be harsh, but nature knows what’s best and will do what is required to ensure the continued survival of the fittest and healthiest honey bees that provide so much for us all!
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