Worker bees are mindless, cooperative robots who stick to their hives their entire life... with one exception. One study of the large-earth bumblebee discovered worker bees were raising drones that somehow contained the genes of different hives. So where did they come from?
Queen bees, after a mating flight, lay eggs that turn into mostly workers, and a few lucky eggs get to be candidates for the next queen. They’re all female. Where do the males come in? Male bees, drones that mate with the queen during her one trip, develop from eggs laid by unfertilized worker bees. They’re raised by worker bees, as well. They’re the worker bees’ babies, or so we thought. When researchers took a look at the genes of these drones, they found that some were the offspring of bees outside of the hive. They went looking for the culprits.
What scientists discovered was a special type of laying worker bee — one that reached reproductive age earlier than most, that reproduced more easily, and that was significantly more aggressive. These workers sought out other hives and snuck their way inside, blending in with the other workers. Once they were in, they laid eggs for drones with their own genes and took off, letting the other hive take care of their offspring.
We’ve seen the kinds of things that bees do to impostors in their nest. It’s not for the faint of heart. From cooking intruders to death with their combined body heat to mass stingings, there are consequences to getting caught inside an enemy nest. So it’s interesting to realize that some bees are asexual double-agents, risking life and limb to spread their genes in enemy territory.
Note: Due to a number of mix-ups, this piece had to be extensively re-worked. Sorry, guys.
Image: Simon Koopmann.