What’s So Super About the Super Organism in the Honey Bee?
In 1911 the American entomologist William Morton Wheeler first described social insect colonies, like honey bees, as “superorganisms” because they work together for the survival of the colony, instead of just themselves.1 Bees are like the cells that make up an individual organism, and the colony is like the organism.2
Honey bees cooperate and work like a team by having different jobs. All female bees are created equal, even the queen, when eggs are laid. It is what they are fed that determines if they are going to grow into a worker or a queen. This is decided based on which is needed. Worker bees get different jobs as they grow older. At first they only know how to beg for food, but soon learn to clean and then feed and take care of larvae, young bees, and the also the queen. Next they learn to take nectar and pollen into the hive from the entrance where it is being delivered by the foragers. Once their stinger is ready and they are strong enough to fly well they become guard bees, and then finally foragers. The queen and the drone have their own jobs too. The queen’s job is to make sure the colony has new bees when the older bees die. She must lay all of the eggs that will become the honey bees that make up her colony. This makes all the workers sisters and all of the drones their brothers. The drones’ job is to mate with other queens and carry on the genes of their mother, the queen.3
Honey bees not only help their colony, they help humans and other organisms too. Pollination is one of the ways they help others. Forager honey bees help plants make seeds when they visit flowers to get nectar. During their visit to each flower pollen gets on them, and when they go to the next flower some of that pollen gets transferred allowing a seed to grow.4 Bees and flowers can help each other this way because they have coevolved, affecting the physical features and behavior of each other thorough natural selection.5
When there are many of bees out foraging on crops like vegetables or in orchards this increases pollination and more food will grow. This helps humans. They also collect honey from pollinate plants that provide food to wild animals. This helps the animals, and also helps the plants seeds spread as the seeds from the fruits of the plant pass through the animals digestive system and out into a new place.6 If bees are not around to help with pollination not as much will grow. In some places where there are not enough honey bees then farmers have to hand pollinate. One person cannot do this job alone because it is a lot of work and would take forever. Hand pollination means putting pollen in each flower using a paintbrush. This doesn’t include getting the pollen. This means they have to hire workers to help and that takes away from their profits. This is already happening in orchards in China.7
And then there is honey, and well, honey is yummy. Most people would say it is the best thing about honey bees; after all we made it part of their name. Honey production actually starts inside of worker bees’ honey sacs. Honey is a mixture of the nectar the bees collect from the flowers they visit, proteins and enzymes from the bee’s saliva, and even a little bit of pollen. The bees put this mixture in the combs of their hive and fan it to make some of the water evaporate. This keeps bacteria and fungi from growing in it.8 There are many types of honey from very light in color to very dark, with different flavors, aromas, and scents. They get their differences from the plants the nectar comes from. There are as many types of honey as there are flowers, probably even more since there can be mixtures.9 I really like blueberry honey myself, but some popular types for sale here in Pennsylvania by local beekeepers include clover, wildflower, and buckwheat.
There are so many amazing things honey bees do, it is hard to describe them all. There are many very long books about them for good reason. A few of my other favorites are their ability to make wax that can be used for things like candles and lip balm, their super-power like ability to see ultraviolet light that is invisible to us humans, and their fun method of communicating with their hive mates through the waggle dance.10,11,12 Through all of these examples and all the others I didn’t get to mention, honey bees bring so many people joy. Enjoying honey bees was what the bee keepers I have talked to said was their favorite part of beekeeping, even thinking of them as thousands of little pets, well, and of course the honey, making honey bees truly super!13,14
1. Wenseleers, T. (2009). The Superorganism Revisited. Bioscience, 59(9), 702-705. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2009.59.8.12.
2. Page, P., Lin, Z., Buawangpong, N., Zheng, H., Hu, F., Neumann, P., Dietemann, V. (2016). Social apoptosis in honey bee superorganisms. Scientific Reports, 6, 27210. http://doi.org/10.1030/srep27210.
3. Flottum, K. (2010). The Backyard Beekeeper, Revised. Beverly, MA: Quarry Books.
4. Solomon, E.P., Berg, L.R., Martin, D.W. (2006). Biology (7th ed.), Pollination (pp.671). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning.
5. Solomon, E.P., Berg, L.R., Martin, D.W. (2006). Biology (7th ed.), Pollination, Flowering plants and their animal pollinators have coevolved (pp.672). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning.
6. Solomon, E.P., Berg, L.R., Martin, D.W. (2006). Biology (7th ed.), Biology (7th ed.), Seed dispersal is highly varied (pp.679-681). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning.
7. Imhoof, M. (Producer and Director). (2012) More than Honey [Motion Picture]. Switzerland: Kino Lorber.
8. Will, O.H., III. (2017). Wholesome as Honey. Grit’ sGuide to Backyard Bees and Honey, Winter 2017, 50-53.
9. Colby, C. (2017). Nectars in Nature. Grit’sGuide to Backyard Bees and Honey, Winter 2017, 54-58.
10. Collision, C. (2015, March 31). A Closer Look: Beeswax, Wax Glands. Bee Culture. Retrieved from www.beecultur.com/a-closer-look-beeswax-wax-glands/#.WorniL_ZxOQ.mailto.
11. Riddle, S. (2016, May 20). How Bees See And Why it Matters. Bee Culture. Retrieved from www.beeculture.com/bees-see-matters/#.Woro7wlci4c.mailto.
12. Attenborough, D., Henderson, A. (Directors). (2014). Micro Monsters with David Attenborough: Family [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Colossus Productions.
13. Fiore, D. (2018, February 15). Email Interview.
14. Schoeppner, C. (2018, February 8). Personal Interview.