Following is an excerpt of a discussion we had at the last Bee-Centered Beekeeping Immersion Class in Salida, Colorado. There was conjecture involved in this exercise, but one of our goals was to expand our awareness of the fact that there is SO MUCH that we still don't know about honey bees. Although much of what is said below about drones may be speculative, I will not be at all surprised to see this borne out by research in the years to come.
It is well known that a honey bee colony does not exist in a vacuum; it is connected to the other colonies within its region in more ways than we may ever imagine. But one well-researched and well-documented way that multiple, ongoing colonies within a region are connected is through genetics, which we shall look at in a moment.
A phenomenon that is, perhaps, not-so-well-known is that, while female foragers are not typically allowed in a hive that is not their own, drones are. They have been regularly observed going in and out of hives that are not their home hive. And, the drones have been observed going right into the brood nest and walking around on the comb where the nurse bees are feeding the young.
What are the drones doing in there?
Below are some questions that this behavior by the drones raised in our Bee-Centered Beekeeping class. Although we entered the realm of conjecture at this point, there are others who have written about these same questions.
What if the drones are assessing the health, welfare, and genetics of the other colonies in their region?
What if, at the same time, the drones are sharing information (through scent or by other means that we cannot imagine) about the health, welfare, and genetics of their home colony?
What if, based on all of this shared information about the health, welfare, and genetics of all the colonies in their region, the drones are congregating in drone congregation areas, to mate with virgin queens, in groups that provide the mix of genetics that the new colonies in that region will need?
What if the drones and the virgin queens can actually recognize in each other the genetics that need to be mated in order to make-up for weaknesses in the colony that the virgin queen is from?
We’ll now leave our conjecture about the drones and come back to well-researched, well-documented colony genetics.
When a virgin queen mates, she typically - and ideally - mates with a number of different drones. (Between twelve and twenty drones is a well-documented number.) That diversity of genetics is critical as we will see in a moment.
After the queen has finished her mating flight(s), she then has all of the eggs and all of the sperm cells in her body that she will use to produce her progeny for the rest of her life.
As the queen lays eggs that are to become female workers, she lays fertilized eggs. That is, inside her body she unites a stored sperm cell from one of the drones with the egg that she is laying.
For purposes of this discussion, let’s say that this queen mated with twelve different drones and that the eggs she lays are fertilized in equal number by the sperm cells from each of those drones.
This means that all of the female worker bees she produces (from fertilized eggs) are at least half-sisters. They all share the same mother. And, in addtion to this, there will be twelve clans of full-sisters in that colony.
Each of those clans carries not only the genetics of the queen, but the genetics of the drone whose sperm cells fertilized the eggs from which the worker bees in that clan developed.
There are twelve genetically different clans in that colony! One clan may have the genetics to be good at foraging for nectar, another clan may be good pollen foragers, another may be good at producing wax and building comb, another may be good at grooming, another may be good at evaporating nectar into honey, another may be good at evaluating the nutrition of the pollen, and so on. (We were not suggesting that they divide responsibilities along these lines, we were just recognizing that there is a diversity of genetics.)
The genetic diversity of the twelve clans in that colony gives that colony vigor, robustness, and adaptability!
Now we can see how it might make sense that the drones are actively evaluating the genetics of all the colonies in their region and, perhaps, even contributing to the management of those genetics through the mating process.
Some have even speculated that queen bees can also contribute to this effort by contolling which sperm cell is being united with an egg she is laying. In other words, she can choose which clan she is adding to as she lays.
Everything mentioned above, related to clan genetics, is well-researched and well-documented. The conjecture about the role of the drones has yet to be proven as far as we know.
Now to the conventional beekeeping practice of re-queening.
When a conventional beekeeper re-queens a colony, he/she destroys everything described above!
All of the work of all of the colonies in that region, to provide a particular colony with the genetics it needs, is destroyed. (Based on our conjecture about the role of the drones.)
All of the work of all of the colonies in that region to manage the genetics of their species within that region is damaged at best. (Again, based on our conjecture about the role of the drones.)
All of the work by that particular queen to provide the right balance of clan strengths in that colony so that it can survive and thrive is destroyed. (Based on the postulate that the queen can control which sperm cell unites with an egg.)
The family relationship of all of the bees; the workers, the drones, and the queen is destroyed. Realize, too, that all of the drones are brothers to each other and to all of the female workers. (No conjecture here.)
The morale of the colony is destroyed. Their mother has been killed. Her scent which held everything together - which was the basis of their measure of health, well-being, unity, and identity - is now gone. (No conjecture here.)
The colony itself is destroyed. Each of those clans is now made up of “dead bees walking.” Their genetics - their lineage - has been destroyed. There will be no more bees produced for their clan. And this is true of every clan including the brotherhood of drones. (No conjecture here.)
It’s different if the bees re-queen themselves.
One, they raise a daughter of the original queen; everyone is still related.
Two, all of the colonies in that region, through the drones, knew that this was coming and prepared to support it through the transfer of the correct genetics when the new queen mated. (Based on our conjecture about the role of the drones.)
Three, this new queen will be mated by drones in her region. She could be mated by drones who are brothers of the drones who mated with the original queen. There could be a very real sense in which the clans continue, at least in part.
Four, this was not a sudden, devastating catastrophe. The bees knew it was impending (either through the need to produce a swarm, or through the failure of the queen) and went through all the steps involved in the process of raising a new queen.
Perhaps even well-meaning beekeepers do things that are devastating to their colonies simply because they just don’t know any better. They haven’t taken the time to really study the biology of honey bees and understand the vast intricacies of their world. A conventional beekeeper can also, perhaps, tend to resist any information that upsets their rationalizations and justifications for taking what they want from the bees.
Perhaps people don’t realize that conventional beekeeping in the U.S. is largely based upon the maximization of the profits of the beekeeper through the maximization of honey production. Even if that is not the goal of a hobbyist beekeeper, that is still the world from which conventional beekeeping equipment, practices, techniques, and advice come from. In that world, honey bees are thought about, talked about, and treated as livestock.
The heart of a bee-centered beekeeper is to see the bees themselves, and to support them in ways that give them the opportunity to live from a place of joyful hope rather than just the grim determination to survive.
A bee-centered honey bee steward cannot help but find themselves asking those “what if” questions… and then yearning for the answers.
“I was a beekeeper once, and the bees have forgiven it.” Heidi Herrmann