Bee Byte: Are All Bees Social?

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For most of us, a highly social hive of buzzing honey bees come to mind. But this is actually only a tiny sliver of the social structural pie. Here are some (but not all) other types of organization:

Solitary: Most bees are solitary, where a single female makes her nest alone. Solitary bees lay their eggs in small cells on top of a bed of food – the egg later hatches and feeds itself. Adults typically emerge from their cells around the same time, forage, lay their eggs, and then die while larvae/pupae wait underground for the next appropriate ’emergence’ season. This means adult generations do not overlap.

Gregarious nesters: These bees often appear social, as many solitary females will nest individually, but nearby one another, in ‘aggregations’.

Communal nesters: This is when multiple solitary females all share one nest, but lay their own eggs in individual cells within that nest.

Facultatively social: These species can be solitary or social, depending on environmental cues. In one species, Ceratina australensis, two sisters will sometimes form a colony together instead of nesting alone, with one foraging and reproducing and the other acting solely as a guard.

Primitively eusocial: Here, there are reproducing ‘queens’ and nonreproducing (but not sterile) ‘workers’. Queens and workers generally look similar, and workers can sometimes replace queens.

Photo credit: Meghan Barrett Apis mellifera, the Honey Bee
Photo credit: Meghan Barrett
Apis mellifera, the Honey Bee

Advanced eusocial: The honey bee colony: reproducing queens, nonreproducing, functionally sterile workers. Workers and queens do not look similar. The workers care for the queen’s young, and there are overlapping generations of adults.

Additional sources:

Wikipedia has a great chart (bottom of page) showing the differences between terms used to describe sociality, including: Eusocial, Semisocial, Subsocial,and Quasisocial.

This paper discusses some theory on the evolution of eusociality.

This paper addresses how advanced eusociality may have arisen through other types of sociality.

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