Honeybees are a superorganism

Last night at dinner time my 5 year old said “Hey Google, set a timer for 3 gagillion-billion-million-and-28 milliseconds”. Well apparently Google knows what a gagillion is and at 2:03 am the timer went off. Thanks Google – I don’t need to sleep anyways. I used the time, laying awake as the house slept soundly, to think about why I was so fascinated by honey bees. There are many reasons, and I hope in time to be able to share them all here. But one of the most unusual things, and how it affects our approach as veterinarians, is that we can examine and treat the individual bee or we can examine and treat the superorganisim.

So what does it mean to be a superorganism? It isn’t that honey bees have super hero status (although I think they should!) but rather that the colony is made up of individuals, with clearly defined and very different jobs. As individuals they are unable to survive on their own and unable to survive without all of the different members present and working together. It is similar to how all of the cells in the human body need to be assembled together to make a human, as on their own they would die off and go extinct. So as a veterinarian working with bees we can consider the animal to be the individual bee or we can think of the animal as the colony. I have found it is most often the later that we use. We can also apply herd health principles which we use for our other agricultural species such as a herd of cows or flock of chickens – thinking of the colony as the animal, and all of the colonies together within the apiary – or bee yard – as the herd.

Within a honey bee colony there needs to be a Queen bee – the reproductive female who is the mother of all of the individuals within the colony. Her job is to lay eggs and she is an egg-laying machine! At peak times she can lay up to 2000 eggs every day! All of the other female bees in the colony are worker bees. These bees go about everything that needs to be done to keep the colony alive, growing and healthy. The workers will go through the various jobs as they age which include: being a nurse bee and rearing the young, taking care of the Queen, building wax comb, housekeeping, undertaker tasks such as removing dead bees from the hive, guard duties at the front entrance, and foraging. The drones, or male bees are the last member of the superorganism and their job is simply to fly off to find a virgin queen from another colony to mate with. They do not contribute to the work being down within the hive. Examining the differences between the castes of bees is also so fascinating but I will save this for a later post.

Reproduction is done on both the individual bee level and on the colony level. At the individual level the queen mates with drones from other colonies and lays eggs, building up the large population of mostly worker bees that are needed to grow the colony so that reproduction can occur on the colony level. This occurs as swarming. When the honey bees run out of space within their hive, they raise a new queen and then roughly half of the bees and the old queen will leave the hive in search of a new home. It can be amazing to see as they will often find a resting place, such as on a tree branch, where thousands of bees will all cluster together (protecting the queen in the middle) and just hang out while worker bees fly off in search of the new digs. These exploring bees will come back and, through dance, will communicate what they have found to the group. Notes will be compared from the various explorers until the new location is decided on – oftentimes it is within the framework of a house. Because the new site is usually not ideal for us humans, and because the feral population of bees are not being managed for disease and are then a source of infection to our managed colonies, it is a good idea to get in touch with a beekeeper or beekeeping association if you see a swarm. Many beekeepers will happily collect a swarm (free bees!), and offer the bees a new hive to move into.

Although the individual bees have short lifespans (worker bees in the summer typically only live 6 weeks) the colony lifespan can be measured in years. It is neat to watch the changes in the colony over the seasons that allows it to survive year after year. Spring is a time of tremendous population growth with the queen laying egg after egg and the workers working hard to raise the babies (brood). Summer is the time of peak population and the large number of foragers are busy collecting nectar that will be stored as honey. The amount of honey that the colony can store within a season can be tremendous. During fall the population size dwindles down, and any drones that have remained in the hive are kicked out so that they cannot be a drain on the reserves that the worker bees have worked so hard to save. In the winter the worker bees are physiologically different from the worker bees in the summer and these differences allow them to live for up to 6 months. They will stay within the hive, forming a cluster around the queen and keeping each other warm. Even when it is -30 degrees Celsius outside, the inside of the honey bee cluster will be a balmy 27 degrees Celsius, with all that stored honey providing the fuel to keep the bees alive and warm. And even though the queen can live for years, the superorganism does not necessarily die out when she does. If the queen begins to fail the workers will sense this and race to raise a new queen to take over and continue the life of the colony.

The intricacies of how all of these bees come together, in silence and darkness, to produce a life force that is responsible for such much other life on our planet is something worth laying awake at night to think about.

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