Why do bees have queens? Two biologists explain the social structure of this insect – and why some bees have no queen at all

By | March 4, 2024

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Why do bees have queens? – Rhylie, age 8, Rosburg, Washington

When you think of “bee,” you probably think of one species that lives all over the world: the honey bee. And honey bees have queens, a female that lays virtually all the eggs for the colony.

But most bees don’t have queens. With approximately 20,000 species of bees worldwide – that’s about 2 trillion bees – the majority do not even live in groups. They do fine without queens or colonies.

Instead, a single female lays eggs in a simple nest, either in a plant stem or in an underground tunnel. She provides each egg with a ball of pollen mixed with nectar collected from flowers, and she allows the eggs to hatch and develop on their own. She has no one to help her with this process.

These bee species, often spectacularly beautiful, are important pollinators of many crops and plants, although most people are not even aware of them.

Since many bees live successfully without a queen, what can queens offer to the bee species that do have them? We are behavioral ecologists who study social insects, and this question is at the heart of our research.

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A queen, workers and drones

In addition to honeybees, two other types of bees also have queens: bumblebees, which are found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica, and stingless bees, which are mainly found in tropical areas.

One honeybee colony – also called a beehive – can contain more than 50,000 bees, while bumblebee colonies usually only have a few hundred bees. Stingless bee colonies are often small, but some are as large as the largest honey bee hives.

The social structures of these bees have two things in common besides the egg-laying queen: the female workers who care for the colony, and the males, also called ‘drones’.

Note that males are not included in the ‘workers’ group. Males generally do not help collect nectar or pollen, protect and maintain the hive, or care for the young larvae. The females do all that work.

Instead, the males have one job: to find and mate with a female who could become a future queen. After building up their strength, the males leave the hive to join thousands of other drones, awaiting new queens who are also looking for mates. If males are lucky enough to mate, they die shortly afterwards. Females, on the other hand, typically mate with many different males before beginning their lives as egg-laying queens.

The isolated queen

Maybe you imagine a queen as the one in charge and giving orders to everyone. But that is a case of misleading language. Unlike human queens who lead their colonies, queen bees do not rule over their workers.

Instead, especially in honey bees, the queen is quite isolated from what is happening in the hive. Remember, she only lays eggs, as many as 2,000 a day. The workers surround and care for her as they manage the colony. The queen bee can live for a few years, much longer than female worker bees and drones.

Other animals also live in social groups with a division of labor between those who reproduce and those who maintain the colony. Ants, termites and some wasps – such as yellow jackets and hornets – have a similar colony structure. This also applies to the naked mole rat. Why did these groups evolve to have queens?

Family ties

One way an organism can pass on genes is by producing offspring.

Another way is to help close relatives, who likely share many of your genes, produce more offspring than if they were alone.

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This option is pretty much what happens in a bee colony. Those thousands of female worker bees may not be able to reproduce themselves, but the queen is their mother. They help her produce a new generation of siblings who will one day be their sisters. In this way, the female worker bees pass on their genes to the next generation, just not directly.

Another thing to think about: a honey bee hive is a wonderfully complex structure. The layers of wax combs built to store honey and raise offspring are a marvel of architecture, requiring a large labor force for construction, constant repairs, and protection from intruders or predators.

So you might wonder: what came first? Social groups with queens and workers that produced large numbers of related offspring that required more elaborate nesting structures? Or did the complex nest emerge first, leading to greater success for groups that evolved to divide tasks among queens and workers?

These are fascinating questions that biologists have been investigating for decades. But both of these factors – the division of labor and the complex hive structures – help explain why there are bees with queens.

Hello, curious children! Do you have a question that you would like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity knows no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering too. We won’t be able to answer all questions, but we will do our best.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization providing facts and analysis to help you understand our complex world.

It was written by: Phil Starks, Tufts University and Aviva Liebert, Framingham State University.

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The authors do not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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