Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Why bees are so great

I co-wrote the Minding the Hive episode airing tonight on Science Channel with the director Chad Crowley and in a subplot that wasn't fully fleshed out in the episode that made it to air, Steve is inspired to write the Great American Management Book after she's observed bees taking over her office. She cites some of the great titles: "Shoulders are Rungs," "Lessons from Great Shaker Elders," the one by the guy who wrote entirely with his eyes. Steve's book is centered on bees, specifically, how they are self-sacrificing for the greater good of the hive, a pretty fascist take on management to be sure, but most specifically, Steve homed in on the queen and her role. Bees have a clear, strong female leader and thus her interest in their hive management was ignited.

In researching the episode, we found that while the queen does initially appear to be the head of the hive, she is actually in some ways the other bees' reproductive slave. Female worker honeybees certainly serve the queen - they keep her warm in the winter by shuddering and cool in the summer by fanning her with their wings; they feed her and tend to her - but upon deeper investigation, we found that the queen pretty much was there only to lay eggs for everyone else. The big joke then became Steve's confusion about the queen bossing the rest of the hive around. The queen does not, in fact; a bee hive is an emergent system, which results when you get several tens of thousands of bees doing its own job. Collectively they form a smoothly-functioning hive.

But bees still aren't that cut and dried. The queen still has a tremendous amount of power over what takes place in the hive, especially when it comes to a new queen being raised. The queen feeds worker bees a pheromone called queen substance and it effectively short circuits whatever neural signal that represents a bee's thought that it should begin preparing to raise a new queen and establish another hive. It's elegantly simple how a new hive begins: When there are too many bees, the queen can't produce enough queen substance to go around and the effect is diminished. With the queen substance spell worn off, the workers set about raising a new queen.

To get a queen a bee needs to begin with a female. Whether an egg is male or female depends on whether it's fertilized. If it is, from the egg will hatch a female bee. If it is unfertilized it will be a male (a drone). It almost sounds like some sort of folk belief system. Once the egg hatches, female worker bees feed it royal jelly and once it emerges from its cocoon the bee will be a queen, capable of producing queen substance and laying thousands of eggs. When the new queen is born, the old queen and about half the hive flies off to establish a new one.

So who's to say who's in charge here? The more I looked into it, the more a utopian give and take emerged. And what impressed me most was that they do all this with less than 1 million neurons in their tiny little heads.

More to Explore