If you are fascinated by the world of bees, you might wonder how these tiny insects manage to cooperate so efficiently and harmoniously in their colonies. How do they organize their work and divide their tasks among themselves? In this blog post, we will explore the division of labor in honeybees, one of the most remarkable examples of social organization in nature.
Honeybees are social insects that live in colonies of thousands of individuals, each with a specific role and function. The colony consists of three types or castes of bees: the queen, the workers and the drones. The queen is the only fertile female in the colony and her main job is to lay eggs. The workers are sterile females that perform all the other tasks necessary for the survival and growth of the colony, such as cleaning, building, nursing, foraging and defending. The drones are males that have only one purpose: to mate with a virgin queen.
The workers are the most numerous and versatile members of the colony. They exhibit a phenomenon called temporal polyethism, which means that they change their tasks according to their age. A worker bee goes through several stages in her life, each with a different job and specialized physiology. The division of labor among worker bees is not rigid or fixed, but rather flexible and adaptive to the needs of the colony. Various factors such as hormones, genes, environmental cues and social interactions can influence the transition from one task to another.
The first stage in the life of a worker bee is working inside the hive and tending to the brood. This stage lasts for about 12 days after emergence from the pupal stage. During this time, the worker bee performs tasks such as cleaning cells, feeding larvae, attending to the queen, building and repairing comb, storing food and ventilating the hive. These tasks require a high level of nutrition and energy, as well as a developed hypopharyngeal gland that produces royal jelly, a substance rich in proteins and sugars that is fed to the larvae and the queen.
The second stage is the transition from hive work to foraging. This stage lasts for about 6 days and involves tasks such as receiving nectar and pollen from returning foragers, processing and storing food, guarding the entrance and orienting outside the hive. These tasks require a high level of learning and memory, as well as a developed antennal lobe that processes olfactory information.
The third and final stage is foraging. This stage lasts for about 12 days until death. During this time, the worker bee flies out of the hive to collect nectar, pollen, water and propolis from various sources of flowers and plants. These tasks require a high level of navigation and communication skills, as well as a developed mushroom body that integrates sensory information and mediates complex behaviors such as waggle dance, a form of communication that conveys information about the location and quality of food sources.
How does a worker bee know what to do at each stage? This is a question that has puzzled scientists for decades and still remains incompletely understood. However, some possible mechanisms have been proposed based on experimental evidence. One mechanism is social inhibition, which means that older bees inhibit younger bees from performing certain tasks by physical contact or chemical signals. For example, older bees may prevent younger bees from foraging by blocking their access to the exit or by releasing pheromones that suppress their foraging motivation.
Another mechanism is foraging for work, which means that younger bees look for available tasks within the hive based on cues such as demand, supply and feedback. For example, younger bees may start nursing when they encounter hungry larvae or stop nursing when they encounter satiated larvae. Younger bees may also adjust their task performance based on positive or negative feedback from older bees.
A third mechanism is push-pull model, which combines elements of both social inhibition and foraging for work. This model proposes that younger bees are pushed from their current task by the development of workers behind them in the temporal caste sequence, while older bees are pulled from their current task by interactions with workers ahead of them in the temporal caste sequence. For example, younger nurses may be pushed from nursing by older nurses that inhibit them or by younger cleaners that compete with them. Older nurses may be pulled from nursing by middle-aged bees that recruit them or by foragers that stimulate them.
The division of labor in honeybees is a complex and dynamic system that allows them to achieve high levels of efficiency and productivity in their colonies. By changing their tasks according to their age and physiology, as well as responding to internal and external factors, worker bees ensure that all the necessary functions are performed at optimal levels. The division of labor in honeybees is also an example of self-organization, which means that there is no central authority or leader that controls or coordinates the behavior of individual bees. Instead, each bee acts independently based on local information and interactions, resulting in a global pattern of organization that emerges from the collective actions of the group.