Among the insects of hymenoptera, some exhibit highly developed social structures. An excellent example of this are honey bees, an insect that lives in hives and has a highly developed class system. Their roles in these communities include communication, gathering food, creating a nest, and caring for their young. Their organization finds many parallels with humans and their organization of the home, and in fact, the ancient Greek writer Xenophon compares a woman’s role in the house to that of a queen bee who directs the worker bee, produces offspring, and is in charge of food distribution in his house-managing manual titled Oeconomicus. Through this comparison, this passage highlights the various roles the queen bee, worker bees, and drones take on in their colonies.
The most powerful bee in the hive is the queen, as pictured above. There is only one queen in a hive, and she can live for several years. During the spring and summer when the queen bee is ready to mate, she can lay up to 1,500 eggs in a day. She mates with many drones, up to 15, and stores their sperm in her spermatheca, which she will use throughout her life to produce new workers. She secretes a special pheromone, which establishes her position as queen of the hive by inhibiting sexual development of workers and promoting tranquility in the hive. It also helps attract drones to mate with. Queens leave their hives soon after reaching maturity to find drones from other hives to mate with.
Those bees born from the queen’s fertilized eggs become workers. Worker bees are also female, but are typically unable to mate. Instead they perform most of the work around the hive, gathering food, caring for larvae, and guarding the hive. If the hive does not have a queen, then worker bees can develop the ability to mate.
Bees born from unfertilized eggs mature into drones. Because of this, they only have one set of chromosomes as opposed to the two sets found in the other inhabitants of the beehive. The drones thereby serve as an example of the haplodiploidy that is characteristic of hymenoptera. Unlike the queen and worker bees, drones contain no stinger, pollen basket, or wax glands, and thus their main purpose within a colony is to reproduce with the queen bee. Drones are larger than other bees (as seen in the comparative picture above) and the only group of the three to be comprised of males. They tend to eat more than workers and do not usually gather food of their own. They tend to be thrown out of the hive if food is scarce, though not if the hive lacks a queen.
While queens and workers are both born from fertilized eggs of their queen, they are differentiated early on by the differing contents of their diets. All female larvae are initially fed a nutrient-rich substance called “royal jelly,” but those who are to become workers are soon switched to a mixture of honey and pollen known as “bee bread.” Only larvae that are chosen to become queens are given royal jelly throughout the larval stage of development.
Social structures are more developed in honey bee populations than in bumble bees ones. Bumble bees have small hives and less physical distinction between castes. A bumble bee queen starts a hive on her own by laying fertilized eggs and raising a number of workers. Eventually, her dominance will wane and some of the workers will lay unfertilized eggs that hatch into drones while others leave the hive to start their own hives. This reduced social structure extends to feeding patterns as well; whereas honey bees use a form of dance to communicate the location of food, bumble bees do not and learn to forage independently.
Consequently, these patterns of social structure are not uniform in the group hymenoptera; different species in this group display these social structures to a greater or lesser extent, reflecting the variety of features that has evolved among these insects.