Meet the Family Caste

Yesterday, I vented about honey bees and honeybees – the former being correct, the latter wrong. Today’s a new day, so here’s a new vocab issue. In today’s interesting world of blended boundaries, I thought I’d write a few words about gender and caste among honey bees. I’m not going to dig deeply into the science, just skimming the surface here.

You will frequently read or hear that bees have three castes. They don’t. I’m sure that I’ve made the same error – describing worker, queen, and drone as the three honey bee castes. Entomologists smarter than I have also made that mistake in their books and articles. So, here’s the scoop.

Half the chrome

Half the chrome

Honey bees are not gender-fluid. A drone is stuck in his manliness because he is born with just half the number of chromosomes (16) compared to what’s awarded to female honey bees. If the queen lays an unfertilized egg, it has only her own chromosomes, just a half set, resulting in a haploid creature which we call a drone. A drone bee has no father. Just a Mum.  If the queen fertilizes her egg while depositing it, then the fertile egg has a full chromosome set and it becomes a female. Honey bees can’t cross the gender boundary. Drones are clearly different from the other bees, but they are not a caste. They’re  a gender.

On the other hand, (female) honey bees are caste-fluid, at least while they are still formless little sacks of larval pulp. If it’s fed a royal diet instead of the worker-caste gruel of a commoner, the worm becomes a queen instead of a worker. They’re both still females. But they are different castes of female with differently developed bodies. They have different futures, different jobs.

So, honey bees have two castes – worker and queen, and they have two genders – male and female. If you catch me messing this up, send me a note or sign into the comments sections on my blogs and set me straight. Together, we can end the three-caste system and build a better world for honey bees everywhere.  (My thanks to Erik for inspiring this little blog-post. He wrote about this subject in detail over at his blog, Bees with eeb, a couple of days ago.)

Don’t be a Dummy about this!

Believing that honey bees have three castes is for Dummies. But you know better.

Believing that honey bees have three castes is for Dummies. But you know better.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Bee Biology, Books, Queens and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Meet the Family Caste

  1. Erik says:

    Ugh, I can’t believe Beekeeping for Dummies got it wrong. There is a reason I haven’t bought that book, I guess 🙂

    Thanks for the reference. There was research a couple years ago showing that queens come from a lack of worker food rather than the presence of royal jelly. It’s a fine but fascinating point,

    Bee well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks. I appreciated your posts on this subject. Did you notice that Dummies is in its Second Edition? The author has had time to fix it. Nevertheless, Beekeeping for Dummies is a top-selling beekeeping book in all the bookseller lists. All you have to do is write for Dummies (the publisher) and people (not necessarily always dummies) will buy it.

      Regarding the royal jelly controversy, not long ago I wrote about the role that DNA methylation may play in queen development (Does Royal Jelly make Royal Queens?) It’s an interesting line of study!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m guessing they make this same mistake in articles about ants, termites, and wasps. Why use the term “caste” anyway? Change it to “type” and the problem is solved.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The bees tell their story – The Obee Reardon

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