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Did you know that the daughters of a queen bee engage in a deadly fight for succession? To celebrate World Bee Day on May 20th this year, read an excerpt from The Art of the Bee which shares the fascinating details of the selection process.
It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. A gentle breeze greets the young queen as she sits at the entrance of the nest she inherited just days ago when her mother abandoned her, departing with an entourage of her sisters, a superorganism divided. The day is warm, no need to prewarm the muscles in her thorax, muscles that will probably be used only two or three times in her long life, a life that’s short to her, about 1 to 2 years, but long for her shorter-lived sisters who can only hope to live a meager 6 weeks — disposable cells of the superorganism body.
She takes flight and begins her search for that special place, that rendezvous point where she’ll have sexual encounters with perhaps 20 males, each invited by her aphrodisiac perfume, occurring in rapid succession as she flies through the midst of thousands, scrambling to be the first, or the next, to copulate with her. In the process, each will commit self-mutilation and suicide. This is the nuptial flight of the queen.
Virgin queens are eager to emerge, but the workers hold them prisoner in their cells.
As tawdry as it sounds, a hard-core scientific description does little better. Many years ago, in the early 1980s, I was interviewed for a national television news magazine. At the time, I was engaged in a honey bee breeding program with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and they wanted information about breeding bees as a way to defend the United States from the invasion of the “killer” Africanized honey bees.
I explained the mating behavior of queens and drones and gave details about instrumental insemination, how you ejaculate and collect the sperm from the males and inject it into the vaginal orifice of the queen. The day after it aired, I had phone calls from friends and family all over the United States asking me how I could stand there with a straight face and say all those words and give all those descriptive details. Sometimes reality is stranger, or more salacious, than fiction.
But the mating behavior of honey bees, as strange as it may seem to us, isn’t fiction. The story began for our virgin queen several days before she took her first nuptial flight; it began with the song of the queen, singing out from the confinement of her wax prison, locked inside by her sisters. Her mother left with about 60% of the workers to establish a new nest, probably within a few hundred meters. Shortly after her mother left, perhaps several days ago, one or more of her virgin sisters emerged from their cells. They may have been mature, ready to emerge, for up to 5 or more days prior to finally cutting themselves free of their wax prisons, giving time for their cuticle — their exterior shell, the exoskeleton, their armor — to harden and for their stinger, a modified organ for laying eggs, to become an effective weapon. The worker sisters until now had been neutral, providing unlimited food to all of the perhaps as many as 25 developing queen larvae. The queen had determined their fate, worker or queen, long before she left, when she laid the egg in the queen cup, the nub of a nascent queen cell attached vertically to the bottom of a comb.
However, now the workers assume a more prominent role in the succession of the nest and the formation of additional secondary swarms that might issue forth. Strong colonies that are congested with adults and full of brood frequently produce a second swarm and even a third or fourth, though the later, smaller afterswarms, usually tiny, have little hope of surviving. Virgin queens are eager to emerge, but the workers hold them prisoner in their cells.
The first one out has the upper hand in inheriting the nest, a precious inheritance of comb, brood, food, and workforce. She’s more mature, harder, and stronger and will seek out the cells containing her rivals, chew holes in them, and sting her softer-bodied sisters sequestered inside.
Playing a recording of queen tooting to a colony that’s queenless will stimulate the bees to leave as if they were engaged in reproductive swarming, another instinctive response.
But the workers have other plans. The nest is very congested with bees, and the colony is primed to produce more than one swarm, so more than one virgin queen will be needed, alive. Workers control the emergence of queens by repairing the cells from the outside as the queens chew at them from the inside. Occasionally, they’ll open a hole and feed the virgin inside, then reseal it. Virgins participate in the transition by pressing their bodies against their cells and vibrating their wing muscles, generating a sound called piping that has two forms, tooting and quacking. Tooting is a song of repeated syllables of 1 to 2 seconds that decrease in length with each one down to about 0.1 seconds; then they stop and start over. Quacking is like tooting but consists only of short 0.1-second syllables. The song is in the key of G sharp.
The workers allowed one virgin, her sister, to emerge before her but denied her access to the remaining queen cells, blocking her access. The free virgin ran from comb to comb, encountering cells with virgin queens that her instincts told her to destroy. Repeatedly being blocked, another behavioral program was inserted into her repertory, and she began tooting. The imprisoned virgins quacked back. The tooting of a virgin queen stimulates the colony to swarm yet again, the second swarm issues forth, again with about half of the remaining bees. Playing a recording of queen tooting to a colony that’s queenless will stimulate the bees to leave as if they were engaged in reproductive swarming, another instinctive response.[…]
Continue reading: The Emergence of a New Queen Bee