The Curious Case of Lazy Bees

What drone males really do all day. /

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.

Henry V, Act 1, Scene 2

Life would be tough as a bee. Your job as a forager would be to grab pollen and nectar from flowers as fast as you could from dawn until dusk. Or perhaps you’d have the pleasant job of “house bee.” Your role would be to engorge yourself with nectar, mull it around for a half hour or so, and then regurgitate it into one of the hundred thousand cells you helped build when you were a younger bee. Even life as a queen would be work because you’d be laying 90 eggs an hour. Guard duty might be easier, but it is still a raw deal. Were you to sting an intruder, some of your important inside bits would be left behind along with your barbed stinger, and you’d quickly die. A honeybee army has no veterans.

So imagine your frustration when you notice the drones in the hive. These male bees look impressive, weighing in at 1.5 times the size of their worker bee sisters. In spite of their size, they can’t forage, and they have no stinger to ward off invaders. The drones don’t care for the young or help build and clean cells. Instead, they appear to just mooch off the hive while they come and go as they please. It would be tempting to kick the freeloaders out of the nest for which you work so hard to provide.

So why do honeybees tolerate these apparently lazy drones? This mystery plagued humans for millennia, and until it was solved, no one could make sense of where bees came from.

Prehistoric cave paintings, ...

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Issue 53 / July 21, 2016
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