Did you know that bees’ pollination is responsible for about one third of our food
(“Häagen-Dazs loves honey bees” 1)? Bees pollinate ninety percent of our earth’s crop species food supply. Just in the United States it is estimated that bees’ work of pollination produces $16 billion worth of food crops (Spivak 1).
What would life be like if honey bees didn’t exist? Honey bees are responsible for many tasks. Honey bees pollinate plants and flowers. Many cattle used for milk and meat eat mainly alfalfa and lupins, both of which need to be pollinated by bees. In addition, canola oil production, pharmaceuticals, and even clothing made from cotton are dependent on the honey bee (Jackson 1). Our world depends on the mighty honey bee for its existence.
The magnificent honey bee survives because it is a superorganism. A superorganism consists of many organisms that function as one organism (“Honey Bee Colony” 1). A honey bee colony is “a symphony of highly coordinated behaviors all designed to promote the entire hive” (MacPhee 1). Dr. Keith Delaplane, entomologist and professor at the University of Georgia, states that a colony is a superorganism since it behaves as an integrated unit, undergoes a period of growth and reproduction, and possesses “cells” that perform different tasks (“The Superorganism” 1). Georgia Master Beekeeper Tom Handford states that a superorganism carries out tasks in a multilevel caste system seamlessly from the very start and that each bee works a single function that with need can switch to adapt to other functions as needed by the whole (1). For example, a worker bee can adapt its function, ranging from housekeeping to scouting to foraging, depending on the need of the hive (Oliver 2; Moritz and Fuchs 8-9). Honey bees can also communicate with each other through pheromones and dances (Moritz and Fuchs 13; Handford 1). Honey bee colonies are superorganisms because they work together to survive, and without one another, the entire colony would collapse.
Colonies require much work and many bees to function. Different bees take different roles in a colony (Mortenson et al. 2). In a typical honey bee colony, there are about 300 drones, 50,000 workers, 9000 larvae, and one queen (“Honey Bee Colonies” 3). The main role of the queen bee is to lay as many eggs as possible. Drones, the male bees, “are responsible for passing the colony’s genes on to the next generation by mating with queens from other colonies” (Mortenson et al. 2). Worker bees do the “housekeeping” work of the colony. Removing waste from cells, feeding the larvae, building honeycombs, removing dead bees, and carrying water to the hive are many duties that worker bees perform (2). When workers stop working for the colony and switch to egg-laying, the colony quickly deteriorates (Delaplane, “Enigmatic Cape Bee” 1). The colony is dependent on each bee doing the task it is designed to perform.
Thermoregulation is an example of how a honey bee colony functions as a superorganism. Individual bees are cold blooded and cannot thermoregulate themselves. According to Steve Nofs, a honey bee colony acts like a warm-blooded organism because it keeps the brood area of the nest at around 93 degrees Fahrenheit even when outside temperatures go above 100 degrees or way below zero (1). When the interior of the hive rises above 93 degrees, worker bees cool the interior by fanning air over droplets of water (Mortenson et al. 3). When the temperature dips below 93 degrees, worker bees come together around the brood area and vibrate their wing muscles to produce heat (3). Bees maintaining the perfect temperature in the hive is an example of how the honey bee is a superorganism. Without the bees regulating temperature, they would all die.
Another great example of honey bees working as a superorganism is swarming. Swarming occurs when the colony gets too large and needs to split (“Honey Bee Colonies” 4). Swarming must start during the early summer since much work needs to be completed before the following winter (Seeley 34). A new swarm will need to find a suitable place for nesting, occupy it, construct combs, raise new workers, and store enough supplies to last through winter (34). When starting a new swarm, the queen bee rearing begins, and the mother queen lays the eggs for the future queen bee (35). The eggs are laid in queen cups which are constructed by worker bees (35). The daughter queens grow rapidly, and the mother queen eats less and less (35) while the worker bees eat more (37). During swarming, many workers become dormant and hang on the combs which is a sign that swarming is imminent (38). The scout bees working inside and outside of the hive are the ones that begin swarming (39). When the scout bees notice the developing queens reach the pupal stage and that there is sunny weather, they vibrate their flight muscles which sends out a signal that the swarm is about to depart (39). When the scout bees fly in excitement around the hive, it’s time to depart. The bees cluster together and follow the scout bees out of the hive. After several hours to days, the scout bees democratically decide the location of their new home and lead the swarm there. (Parsons 1). Back at the original nest, a few thousand worker bees, a few queen cells, and food remain (Seeley 40). After a few days, the new queen will emerge and the colony’s population will rebound and build up. Swarming is an important part of survival for honey bees, and it illustrates how honey bees act as a superorganism because they all have individual jobs that together act as a single organism. The colony communicates effectively and acts democratically when making decisions that affect the entire hive.
Not only is our community dependent on the honey bee for our food, but the honey bee colony can teach our community how to work together and communicate with each other effectively. The honey bee teaches our world that every individual’s designated work is important, but that just like in a honey bee colony, each individual’s survival is dependent on the others. Also, the superorganism honey bee colony depicts the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The cooperative behavior experienced both in our world and in the honey bee colony determines the survival of us all (Rettner 1).
Delaplane, Keith. “Enigmatic Cape Bee.” American Bee Journal, 16 Jan. 2018, http://americanbeejournal.com/enigmatic-cape-bee. Accessed 10 Feb. 2018.
“The Superorganism.” American Bee Journal, 21 Oct. 2015, http://americanbeejournal.com/the-superorganism. Accessed 20 Jan. 2018.
“Häagen-Dazs loves honey bees.” Häagen-Dazs®, http://www.haagendazs.us/about/news/h%C3%A4agen-dazs%C2%AE-loves-honey-bees. Accessed 10 Feb. 2018
Handford, Tom. “Re: Super Organism.” Received by Ben Tellano, 15 Jan. 2018.
“Honey Bee Colonies.” BuzzAboutBees.net, http://www.buzzaboutbees.net/honeybees.html. Accessed 10 Jan. 2018.
Jackson, Jo. "What Would Happen If Bees Became Extinct?" Animals - mom.me, http://animals.mom.me/would-happen-bees-became-extinct-4816.html. Accessed 26 February 2018.
MacPhee, Rayne. Hive Life - The Honeybee Society. Savannah Bee Blog, Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.
Moritz, Robin F.A., and Stefan Fuchs. “Organization of Honeybee Colonies: Characteristics and Consequences of a Superorganism Concept.” Apidologie, 1998, pp. 7–21.
Mortensen, Ashley N., et al. “The Social Organization of Honey Bees.” EDIS New Publications RSS, Entomology and Nematology, 9 Nov. 2015, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in1102. Accessed 10 Jan. 2018.
Nofs, Steve. “Re: Super Organism.” Received by Ben Tellano, 15 Jan. 2018.
Oliver, Randy. “ScientificBeekeeping.com.” Scientific Beekeeping RSS, Jan. 2010, http://scientificbeekeeping.com/the-economy-of-the-hive-part-1. Accessed 10 Jan. 2018.
Parsons, Jay. “Re: Super Organism.” Received by Ben Tellano, 15 Jan. 2018.
Rettner, Rachael. “Insect Colonies Function Like Superorganisms.” LiveScience, Purch, 19 Jan. 2010, www.livescience.com/8020-insect-colonies-function-superorganisms.html. Accessed 10 Jan. 2018.
Seeley, Thomas D. Honeybee Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2010.
Spivak, Marla. “Opinion: What will happen if the bees disappear?” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Mar. 2015, www.cnn.com/2014/05/17/opinion/spivak-loss-of-bees/index.html. Accessed 26 February 2018.