Saturday, March 13, 2010

Honeybee drones revalued

Naturwissenschaften, Volume 97, Number 3 (March, 2010) has an interesting article about honeybee drones. For decades, if not centuries, the prevailing wisdom about drone bees was that they contribute nothing to the welfare of the hive, aside from mating with virgin queens — a bit of Industrial Revolution nonsense owing more to Calvinist fables about sloth and hedonism than to any actual observation of honeybees. Old ways die hard.

Any honest Darwinian will realize immediately that drone bees are the vectors which sift the honeybee genome through the green strictures of local ecology. Queens, who are themselves exposed but for less time (on a single mating flight) to the same harsh local ecology as the drones, gain the experience and genetic contribution of male bees, whether from their own or nearby hives, which have survived an entire golden summer in what John Calvin would have been very pleased with himself to call a fool's paradise. Nothing of the sort.

Nor are drowsy, buzzy summer days a worker's paradise. Worker bees are even more vulnerable to their local ecosystems than drones or queens but their experience doesn't count. There's a catch; workers do not share their genes. Mutable or not, mutated or not, worker bees have no stake in the genetic future of their hive. Even worse, their queens are sequestered and never see the sun unless mating or swarming. The hive's only direct contact with its local environment, in any way that would allow it to adapt to local conditions, is through its drones.

This explains why artificial insemination of honey bee queens grown in the deep South, from similarly-bred CSA* drones never exposed to, and completely inexperienced with, the harsh winters of Wisconsin, the fungal environs of New Jersey, the new Florida of climate change or the microfauna of Story County, Iowa, is such a pestilential notion.

Like robot war and nuclear arsenals, such grand leaps to the frontiers of the possible as artificial insemination, which only seems comic in honeybees until you realize that pollination services by fewer than 500 artificial clades of industrial honeybees create many billions of dollars in agricultural wealth annually, overlooks a devilish lot of nasty consequence — perhaps including CCD (colony collapse disorder). Not everything that can be done should be done. But studying drones (see the Naturwissenschaften article, above) is one of those things that need doing.

Kind of a crude overstatement, really. Worker bees carry most bee pests into the hive, including residual broad-spectrum pesticides and herbicides, microfauna, bacteria, fungi, respiratory parasites, viruses, and whatnot. If these kill off the queen, or destroy the hive via CCD, e.g., then workers can create a certain limited genetic havoc in the local clade akin to decapitation. But I'd argue that pathology is a different case; since workers don't have sex lives, they can't push forward an adaptive generation.

*Confederate States of America, i.e.

Ignoring a peculiar South African honeybee, and those "primitive" bees, if any, that have never heard the rule. Mere parthenogenesis counts as hive pathology.

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