Honeybee Society

How do bees keep order? 

Are there bee enforcers?

No bee rampages through the hive and kills its sisterhood. They do give the drones the heave ho, when supplies are scarce or winter is coming, but they wouldn’t have lived long in the winter, anyway, only eaten precious honey. And worker bees can lay drone eggs, if they’re needed, so they’re easily replaced. But almost every naturally occurring transition for a new queen involves multiple murders: a newly hatched queen will seek out all the other developing queen cells, and kill each one of them—to prevent interregnal warfare. Other than that, there is no violence, except from outside predators.

So, rules of behavior and expectation may be more effective in controlling what’s permissible in their hive. 

Bee society is like an extreme version of Mao’s PRC (People’s Republic). They, the individual worker bees, drones and the queen herself are all part of this huge personality, in which everyone does what they’re supposed to do, so the hive will thrive. There is no dissent; there is no discussion; there is only what they are supposed to do, in every minute of the day. Almost free, are the foragers—it’s a stage in their life cycle—when you see them purposely buzzing to a flower, and then to another and another…. As lovely as that looks, it’s hard work. The freest of the bees are the seniors who have lived long enough to graduate from foragers to scouts; they know the lay of the land, and can find the blossoms, or a place to swarm. They warn of danger: pesticides, mowers, people and bears.

Bees reproduce to spread themselves, by swarming. Sometimes the old queen leads the swarm, while the scouts lead them all to promising new places. Other times, it’s led by the new queen. She, and all the swarm, follow the scouts, who know where they’re going.

A swarm is sort of like a revolution, starting with the permissible insurrection of worker bees making queen cells. The reasons for making them: a felt need to move, an aging queen, a shortage of food within their range (about two miles). Some hives seem to be more prone to swarming, even multiple times in a season, others not so much. Swarming frequency may have genetic roots in the queen.

I saw one swarm gather on a bough high up a tree in my yard. When I climbed up to collect it (with a paper bag), I inadvertently jiggled the bough and the swarm took off, straight into the sky and disappeared high above me.

When a new queen hatches, or is about to, a portion of the hive (mostly foragers and scouts, not nursemaids) leaves the familiar, setting off into the unknown, following either the old queen, or the new one. Then, when settled in the new place, the scouts, no longer leaders, and the foragers now have to become nursemaids again, while the queen (old or new) busily lays her eggs in the brand new hive–if she’s been impregnated. Sometimes, a virgin queen is killed by a passing bird, during her mating flight. Then the swarm hive has a real problem. Only intervention by a human beekeeper introducing a queen by hand, will save the swarm hive from a gradual death.

The older nursemaids in the hive left behind, become the foragers and scouts.

The next generation has to be produced as quickly as the queen can pop out eggs. Then the nursemaids nurse them, until they hatch. The hatchlings replace them as nursemaids, first by cleaning up their own cell. The former nursemaids get to be foragers, again, if they live that long.

Bees seal hives with propolis that appears to have some antibiotic properties—and human uses—especially protection from diseases in the local environment. The propolis is like their collective suit of armor.

A hive, average size, 40-50,000 bees, is a collective person, and personality.

What bees do not have is ethnic diversity. There is no possibility of racism, only sexism and defense against predators, like yellow jackets, mice, or murder wasps. The drones (males) do only sexual service, not even defense. All they do is wait around for a virgin queen. She is usually impregnated many times (perhaps hundreds of times) in her virgin flight. The more impregnations, the longer she can lay, or the stronger her offspring. That’s the only use the drones have, but they’re bigger than worker bees, so they may eat more.

No wonder they’re ushered out into the cold with the coming winter!

Published by douglascsmyth

Writer, gardener, former political science and economics professor, free-lance writer, 81-years old, married to Elizabeth Cunningham, father of Darshann, Julian and Marina. I live on the western slope of the Shawangunk ridge, NY, in a house powered largely by solar and heated and cooled by it. Associated with High Valley, Clinton Corners, until 2014.

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