The Birds and the Honey Bees

It’s a pretty well-known fact that it takes two parents to produce another living animal. One parent contributes one set of chromosomes, the other parent supplies the second set, the genes are mixed at fertilization, and POOF! Offspring capable of carrying on the line of its parents is produced. Count it a win for “genetic diversity.”

That’s the general gist of “the birds and the bees” in the animal kingdom. Except that one of these namesake creatures defies this conventional wisdom and produces an entire population segment with the, erm, input of just one parent.

See that one big bee in the middle? All elevendy billion of those bees around her were spawned by her.

Honey bees, or any species of bee in the genus Apis, lay eggs whether they are fertilized by a male or not. Fertilized eggs (diploid, or eggs with 32 chromosomes from two parents) will develop into female bees. Unfertilized eggs (haploid, or eggs with just 16 chromosomes from the mother only), will develop into the male bees. This is a form of asexual reproduction known as parthenogenesis. In the plant world, this phenomenon is a little more common. In the animal world, it crosses the line into bizarre, only happening in a few invertebrates species and with a few fish and reptiles under extreme circumstances.

To appreciate how incredible this is, visualize a carton of chicken eggs. Each egg is an unfertilized egg laid by the mother hen. Imagine instead of you cracking open that egg and dumping its into a cake batter, you watched in horror/surprise/feigned interest as that egg hatched into a rooster. Now imagine that EVERY rooster that ever existed came into the world this way: half-clones of their own mothers, all virtually identical, without even a full genetic code to make itself feel better.

Honey bee males, or drones, certainly do get the short end of the stick in the hives. Not only do they have half the genes (and double the “absent daddy” issues), but they don’t even have what is arguably the most bad-ass part of the bee: the stinger. Stingers are modified egg-laying organs, or ovipositors. As males, they are sorely lacking in the ability to lay eggs and, as a result, don’t even have the chance to develop this venomous barb.

 A venomous butt-sword would certainly make life in the hive more entertaining.

Drones don’t have stingers to defend themselves or the ladies of the hive. They don’t produce honey, collect nectar, construct hives, or gather pollen like the female worker bees, either. They don’t get a chance to be fed royal jelly to develop into a queen bee. Drones only appear to serve two purposes: to keep the hive warm and, most importantly, to mate with queens from other hives. (But this mating doesn’t have quite the happy ending for our down-on-their luck drones, as their reproductive organs and abdomens are ripped out in the process).

Basically, drones only exist for mating and warming the house by sitting on its rump all day. This is either the most pointless, degrading job assigned by Mother Nature – or the most incredibly awesome one. Maybe it’s nature’s version of a “Sorry You Only Have Half Your Chromosomes” Hallmark card.

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One response to “The Birds and the Honey Bees

  1. >I had no idea about any of this. Thank you for informing me about honey bees! And I might agree that either sitting around staying warm or mating ain't too bad for a life assignment. 😛 Well, except that whole part about mating ending in death….

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