The Birds and the Bees — the Fascinating Tale of Honeybee Reproduction
You know honeybees live in hives with a single queen who lays all the eggs. In fact, honeybee reproduction is a remarkably complicated thing that supports the idea of the hive as a super organism…albeit one in which individual bees are still more individual than we realize.
Queens and Workers
Female honeybees fall into two categories. Either you are a queen or you are a worker. Each colony has only one queen at a time.
You can easily spot the queen in the hive…she’s about twice the size of her workers. The pheromones she produces keep the other female bees from ever reaching puberty.
A new queen is made, not laid. When the queen gets old or when the colony is highly successful, the queen will select eggs, which will then be fed an exclusive diet of so-called royal jelly. Meanwhile the worker larvae are fed a mash of fermented pollen and honey. This causes different genes to express. The worker larvae will stay stunted and infertile, while the queen larvae will grow to their full size and have working ovaries.
It used to be believed that there was something in royal jelly that turned you into a queen. In fact, it appears that feeding the queen larvae only royal jelly protects the queen from plant chemicals that might otherwise cause…so, aha! We have just hit on a possible reason for colony development in the first place. If your diet renders you subfertile, protecting specific females for reproduction suddenly makes sense.
Sexual and Asexual Reproduction
So, how about those eggs, eh?
Queens lay two kinds of eggs. Fertilized eggs and unfertilized eggs. That is to say they reproduce both sexually and asexually. And they produce these eggs in the proportion needed.
Fertilized eggs grow into workers unless a new queen is needed.
Unfertilized eggs grow into drones. Or, in our terms…boys.
Drones only have one job.
In rare cases a worker may lay eggs. If so, because she has never had sex, she can only produce drones. This only normally happens if the queen is failing without a replacement.