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Where do babies come from? Turns out, it's complicated.

Updated: May 5, 2021

Fun fact: Drone bees don't have fathers, but they have grandfathers. Read on to learn why.

In the blazing heat of summer, a single beehive might include around 50,000 members—all daughters and sons of a very hardworking queen. The girls far outnumber the boys because, well, the boys don't do much but look for opportunities to mate. (*Insert your own joke here*) The female workers attend to all the duties of the hive—from cleaning cells, to raising brood, caring for the queen, bringing out the dead, building wax comb, guarding, foraging, and attending to all matters honey. They are the heart and soul of the colony. In a hive teeming with bees, only a few hundred will be drones—and the queen, for her part, decides the sex of every bee in the hive. How?

Obviously, since workers are more valuable to the hive on a day-to-day, operational basis, it's advantageous to grow lots of them. A worker bee is created from a fertilized egg—a process that the queen controls completely. Every fertilized egg produces a female bee. Every unfertilized egg produces a male bee, the drone. Because worker eggs are fertilized, they carry the genetic makeup of both the queen and a drone with whom she mated. Drones—products of unfertilized eggs—share 100% of their mother's genetic makeup. That's why they have no fathers, but they do have grandfathers.

So, how does a queen determine at any given moment who is going to be a drone and who is going to be a worker? Part of the answer has to do with the time of year, the nutrition coming into the hive, and the size of the cell in which she is going to lay the egg. In the late winter and early spring, when colonies are building up for honey season and swarming is more common, colonies need more drones to mate with new virgin queens from other hives. Later in the year, when food resources are scarce, a queen will not produce as many drones. In fact, in the late fall after the drones have outlived their usefulness to the colony, the ladies escort them to the front of the hive and kick them out for good. There's probably a life lesson in there somewhere.

The queen determines where in the hive to put the drones and where to put the workers based on the size of the wax cells. Drones are large, bulbous bugs with hearty appetites; and workers are much tinier with more modest food demands. (It takes about 2mg of food to raise a worker and about 9.6mg to raise a drone, so space is important!) The queen uses her antennae to measure the cells; and if she comes across a small cell, she fertilizes the egg to create a worker; if it's a larger cell, she makes a drone. (There's not much suspense at gender-reveal parties in a beehive.) Three days later, the eggs hatch, the workers raise the brood, and the queen continues her ambitious pace of laying 1200 to 1500 eggs/day.

Where do queens come from? That's an even more fascinating story. For another day. Stay tuned...

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