honey bee swarms

While everyone knows a honey bee hive revolves around one queen to rule them all, it turns out that even bees can have rebellious children. For European honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies, it’s just the queen bee who lays eggs, which hatch into worker bees—all female—that nurse young bees and keep up the hive. However, colonies sometimes go through periods of “queenless-ness,” as in the previous queen has died or left with a swarm and the new one still isn’t ready. When this happens, a handful of the last queen’s worker bee daughters may try to lay eggs of their own—or even make a completely new colony, according to a study recently published by Ecology and Evolution.

Back in 2012, this adaptable form of egg-laying by worker honey bees was discovered by a researching team led by Karolina Kuszewska, an evolutionary biologist, with Kraków, Poland’s Jagiellonian University. Without a queen bee around to discharge a chemical that stunts worker bees’ ovarian growth, “rebel workers” can develop the ability to lay eggs. Since rebel honey bees still don’t mate as queen bees do, they can only produce sons—known as drones—whose existence revolves solely around mating. Also, the replacement for an absent queen bee comes from several daughters that are fed “royal jelly” to develop into potential queens, and they must fight each other basically to the death until just one survivor stands and later grows into the hive’s new queen.

This new study also indicates that rebel honey bees are more daring when compared with regular worker honey bees. When Kuszewska’s team tracked female bees raised in a colony without a queen present, between 21 and 40 percent of them rebelled and flew off to one or more of a dozen other hives—a sizable difference when compared to normal worker bees, whose numbers were between three and eight percent. Unsurprisingly, it was much easier for the rebel worker honey bees to infiltrate hives that didn’t have a queen bee.

The researchers have suggested that this behavior may be a method for rebel worker bees to shift the responsibility of nursing young male bees over to a different colony, a process called “reproductive parasitism.” According to evolutionary biologist Benjamin Oldroyd, who is with the University of Sydney and wasn’t part of Kuszewska’s study, “When there is a queen present, the workers’ best strategy is to work for the colony. When queenless, it can be better to try and parasitize other colonies.”

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