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, beehives from Israel’s First Temple period, and honey found in tombs of the Pharaohs show us that humans have been observing bees for a long time. Despite thousands of years of study, the great mystery of honeybees was how they reproduced.

As we often have to do, ancient people did the best they could to make sense of their world with the evidence with which they had to work. Though some of their ideas are bizarre in hindsight, they demonstrated remarkable creativity when confronted with phenomena they didn’t understand.

Aristotle wrote in his History of Animals that he thought drone bees, rather than nectar, were brought back to the hive from certain flowers. But perhaps the most surprising conclusion drawn by ancient Greeks is the existence of Bugaria, or “oxen born” bees. They believed that bees would spontaneously generate in the corpses of dead animals. It is in this context that we can understand Samson’s riddle in Judges 14: “Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.” This belief in spontaneous bee generation was shared by the Babylonians, Romans, Egyptians, and likely most—if not all—ancient Mediterranean cultures.

There are two major theories as to why this belief was perpetuated. The first is that in arid climates with few hollow trees, a desiccated corpse of something large like an ox would provide an adequate location for a new queen to set up a hive. An alternate explanation has to do with the drone fly Eristalis tenax. Drone flies get their name because they are flies that look like bees, a strategy known as Batesian mimicry. Humans, as well as potential predators, confuse the harmless black and yellow buzzing fly with its stinging counterpart and steer clear of it. These drone flies look for polluted waters and decaying organic matter to lay eggs in. When these maggots pupate and hatch, it may well look like bees have been created from a decomposing animal.

Our ancestors can be forgiven for guessing wrong on bee reproduction. Bees mate far from the hive, in mid-air, and queens only mate once in their lifetime. It’s an unpredictable and rare event to observe. Bees coordinate this unlikely event with pheromones—chemical compounds that help individuals of the same species communicate.

To mate, drone bees from different hives all come to the same area. This gathering of males all looking for a mate is called a lek. Thousands of drones could fly in for the once-in-a-lifetime mating affair. Queens ensure the genetic diversity of their hives by mating with drones from many different colonies.

A young, virgin queen flies through this swarm while drones jockey with each other to mate with her. The drones track the queen mid-flight with her pheromones and with their sharp vision.

E. B. White captured the lek with whimsy in his poem “Song of the Queen Bee,” published in 1945 in The New Yorker. It reads, in part:

When the air is wine and the wind is free
and the morning sits on the lovely lea
and sunlight ripples on every tree,
Then love-in-air is the thing for me—
I'm a bee,
I'm a ravishing, rollicking, young queen bee,
That's me.

I wish to state that I think it's great,
Oh, it's simply rare in the upper air,
It's the place to pair
With a bee.

What he doesn’t mention, though, is that if a drone is successful, his barbed reproductive organs rupture after mating and he dies soon after. After a few passes, the queen will have mated with enough drones to fill her spermatheca. Amazingly, this organ can store all of the sperm she will ever need to fertilize a lifetime of eggs. This new queen then looks for a good spot to start a hive. Perhaps a dried ox corpse would do?

At first blush, drones may appear to be lazy bees, but they are simply highly specialized for a specific task. “Gifts that differ according to the grace given,” as Paul put it (Rom. 12:6, ESV). Their brief lives are spent fully focused on mating with a new queen. In doing so, drones die for the good of the hive. Without drones, honeybees would die out as surely as if they had no queen laying eggs or workers providing for the hive. In their own way, each member of the hive helps to ensure a future for honeybees. There are no lazy bees after all.

Jeremy Lederhouse is an environmental science lab technician at Argonne National Laboratory.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 53 / July 21, 2016
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    Issue 53: Our drone-themed issue is abuzz with music, planes, and bees. /

  2. The Pitch Goes On

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  3. Mapping the Matterhorn

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  4. Beautiful Drone Photos

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  5. Wonder on the Web

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