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The Structure and Purpose of Honey Bee Colonies Explained Simply; A Look at Superorganisms

The first thing to understand about honey bee colonies is that they have one real goal, and that’s to reproduce. The entire colony is set up for the most efficient way to fulfill that task and has two bee types dedicated solely to this task, that’s two out of three spots in their hierarchy!


The first spot is taken up by the famous queen bee. There is only one queen bee per nest and she is the only fully sexually developed female in the colony, and the only one able to produce female eggs. Throughout her lifetime of one-two years, these queens can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day! This slows down near the end of her lifecycle when the appearance of a hormone called queen substance is less abundant.


The next type of bee is the drone bee. This group makes up all male bees in a colony. They emerge from unfertilized eggs, either from the queen herself or from the under-developed worker bees. His only goal is to seek out a virgin and mate with her. I know what you’re thinking –That sounds like my ex!-- but they have one talent that Rick didn’t. Drone bees perish after sex. Their endophallus remains in the queen after ejaculation, and the process of pulling away from her often rips open the drone’s abdomen as well.


The queen mates with these drones only once in her life. Her oviducts collect the sperm from her one mating flight at the beginning of her lifespan. This sperm is then doled out throughout her life to fertilize eggs that produce other female bees.


Every female bee who is not a queen bee is a worker bee. They make up most of the bee population, and throughout their two-six week lives in the summer and their 20 week lives in the winter they do it all. They are the ones responsible for building the hive, finding pollen, producing honey, and raising young.


Worker bees are the ones responsible for producing delicious honey for us all. A worker bee will come back to the hive with a stomach full of undigested nectar. She will then pass the nectar off to another worker bee’s stomach, essentially vomiting into her mouth. This process is then repeated. When repeated, the moisture content of the nectar goes down anywhere from 20% to 70%, thus changing the nectar into honey.


Although each bee has an important individual task, a bee cannot survive without the whole. This is what makes bees a superorganism, which is defined by Webster as “an organized society (as of a social insect) that functions as an organic whole.” The requirement of group work creates a fascinating alignment with the needs of the hive and the palpable collective energy between them.


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