Everyone has heard that bees dance to communicate the sources of flowers and of new homes; but in reality it’s more like a TV dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance, with judges and audience votes.
Groups of bees dance at once, all advocating different locations – and the scout bees take those coordinates and go investigate. Scouts return to the colony and begin dancing with the bee whose proposed location they like the best. Eventually one dancer gathers the most supporters – the largest dance crew – and thus a majority decision is reached about where to forage, and/or where the swarm will relocate.
Bee researchers, led by Cornell University’s Thomas Seeley, have tested the strength of honeybee democracy by offering the colony an array of artificial nesting sites. They tracked the bees and found that the colony always chose the best available home — the one that was the roomiest, driest, and with the most protective entrance high off the ground.
Another bit of bee magic wrapped in a good lesson: Democracy Works.
The lovely doyenne of San Francisco radio, Janet Gallin, host of the Love Letters Live radio show, opened up her airwaves recently to chat with me about life lessons from the hive. Thanks my friend, as always, it was a blast.
Meredith May, journalist, teacher, SF beekeeper and granddaughter of E. Franklin Peace the beekeeper of Big Sur, is back to talk some more about bees and just in time, too, since there is good news about the much discussed, troublesome and mysterious hive abandonment, more currently known as colony collapse disorder. Meredith is one of those people who can talk about the same subject time and again and always bring something new to the table. The hive, it turns out, is very much like some combination manufacturing factory and royal palace with guards, specific jobs, loyalty to hive, scent of the hive set by the queen and a willingness to sacrifice life for the good of the colony.
Another big life lesson the hive taught me is that SEX KILLS. Totally kidding. Got your attention. But, while male bees do die by genital explosion during intercourse (see above), the lesson behind this is about the importance of living for others’ needs in addition to your own.
Selfishness is a Sin
Male bees unfortunately never learn this. While they do have a vital function – impregnating the queen – very few of them actually get the chance. Like men waiting for a pretty woman to walk into the bar, the drones congregate in a cloud in the sky, hoping a virgin queen will fly through them. She will make just one mating flight in her life, copulating with up to 20 drones on the wing, and store their sperm in her body to last her entire egg-laying days (1-3 years).
Drones spend their whole lives in search of their own pleasure, while their sisters scurry around them, storing honey, building wax and feeding the young. There are just a few hundred males in the hive, compared to tens of thousands of females.
Every bee you see on a flower is a girl – they are the nurses, maids, grocery shoppers, construction workers, air circulators and guards of the hive, while their brothers wander the hive demanding to be fed.
Therefore, the layabout drones are pushed out of the hive every winter by their sisters because they are a drain on honey resources needed during the cold months. The poor fellows are victims of their own narcissism, and perish because the colony knows the queen will simply make more studs-in-waiting the following spring when the hive needs them.