Sunday, September 14, 2008

Drone Bees: Wandering Minstrels of the Clade

Yep, male bees, the archetypal Utilitarian definition of a useless load on a productive economy.* But Nature seldom (or never) makes a long-lasting mistake, so if you are a Darwinian evolutionist (like yours truly), you gotta axe yourself, what are we missing here? E. B. White suggested ecstasy but the bees know it goes deeper than that. Bear in mind, bees have been around since the mid-Cretaceous (140-150 million years ago), so we may suspect that most features of their social behavior have successfully withstood an immensity of Time. That includes drones!

Modern apiculture has gone out of its way to reduce, minimize and preferably eliminate altogether the random genetic contribution of casual, footloose drones — exempting only those sacrificial domesticated males absolutely required by commerce for artificially inseminating queen bees. The upshot is, half the genetic component of all commercial beehives in North America is a weak, disease-prone, self-incestuous clade ideally suited, at best, for the fumble-fingered bee breeder's laboratory in Florida or Georgia. Not Iowa, not Minnesota, not Phoenix or Billings.

But evolution is a mysterious spirit which expresses the yin, not the yang. The gaps, the niches in the ecosystem are more important than the plastic DNA which fills them in. By snipping the genetic feedback loop between commercial honeybees and their peculiar local conditions — a catastrophic apiculturalist's foulup affecting only drones, since nectar and pollen gathering worker bees are not sexually active, whilst queens are artificially inseminated — what you get is a dangerous dance on a razor's edge. The "niche" may deform and get even sharper around the edges! Ignore change, and a tightly focussed, ruined or non-resilient species can quickly vanish.

Far from useless, drone bees are the hive's wandering minstrels in tune with the local ecosystem. Robust drones are the genetic vector that has allowed "killer bees" to spread from California to Florida, and from Brazil to Texas in less than 35 years, for example — and small wonder, since drones are the way honeybees adapt to changing conditions. So, for example, the answer to Colony Collapse Disorder may very well turn out to be more drones per hive per decade, not less!

&DaggerJust supposing all this time, bee breeders have been selecting for an attenuated effeminate drone that smells like a queen bee. Voila! Come spring, the drones do their droney thing and breeze out of the hive to visit the romantic liason corners of the local environment, while unbeknownst, a few myriads of confused workers, smelling their queen and laboring under the delusion that the hive is swarming, follow the drones to oblivion. Of course, this scenario only works if CCD happens after the first drone brood of the Spring matures — there are no drones in overwintering hives (and no drones in commercial hive starter packages, either, for that matter!)

Actually, if you search the literature, there's been a lot of research on the short-term question whether artificial insemination degrades or improves the honeybee, mostly wrong ;-)

*Sure, this might seem like a retirement rant, but bear with me here...

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