​Ladies, Let’s Become a Superorganism

International Women's Day from Savannah Bee Company on Vimeo.

International Women's Day is a time to celebrate gender equality and female achievements, and what better example than a honeybee hive, where females are the driving force, working hard together to create something truly extraordinary.

A honeybee colony is a highly organized social structure consisting of one queen bee, 20,000 to 60,000 female worker bees, and a few hundred male drones. Together they form a superorganism in which each group takes on highly specialized roles and works together seamlessly to ensure the colony not only survives but thrives. Their behaviors are something to be admired and maybe even adopted in your own workplace, organization, or family.

The Queen Bee

Who wouldn’t want to be the queen, right? Actually, this regal title is a little misleading. She is the largest bee in the colony and she does have attendants who follow her closely, feeding, cleaning and protecting her, but the queen is very much a servant of the colony.

Other than a brief mating flight at the beginning of her reign and a possible swarm situation, she spends the rest of her life in the hive laying eggs. She will never visit a flower to collect nectar or pollen. She will never build comb or make honey. (tear!) Her sole purpose is to replenish the workforce. She's not as much the ruler of the hive as she is the mother of the hive, as all bees in the colony developed from eggs she laid.

The queen's other major responsibility is producing the pheromones that unify the colony and give it its identity. Without a queen, hive life becomes disorderly. If a beekeeper doesn't promptly introduce another queen or the colony doesn't produce another queen themselves, the hive will die. Likewise, a queen cannot survive on her own.

The Female Workers

As the name suggests, the worker bees carry out all the duties that go into building and maintaining the colony. Development stage is the determining factor as to which job a particular worker bee is assigned. This ensures every worker knows what she is responsible for and everything gets done efficiently -- a dream come true for any workplace or household, am I right?

There is certainly A LOT to do to make a hive hum ...

  • House Bees clean used cells and other bees as well as clear the hive of debris.
  • Nurse Bees feed and care for growing larvae and drones.
  • Attendants feed and groom the queen and remove her waste.
  • Builders construct and repair wax comb and seal cracks in the hive.
  • Pollen packers collect pollen from returning foragers and pack it into cells for later consumption.
  • Nectar ripeners deposit nectar into cells and evaporate it into raw honey.
  • Undertakers remove the 10% of bees who die inside the hive.
  • Guard Bees protect the hive entrance.
  • Foragers locate and collect pollen, nectar, and water.

With all this activity under one roof, there has to be good communication and a clear, common goal -- not unlike the human workplace or home. All the specialized jobs in the hive are interconnected. If there are too many bees bringing back nectar and not enough bees cleaning out cells in which to store that nectar, for example, good communication throughout the whole colony is what brings all the activity back into balance.

Chemicals and Choreography

One way honeybees effectively communicate is through chemical signals called pheromones, which trigger other members of the hive to perform the activities necessary for colony survival listed above. Kind of like a group text but more effective and less annoying. A chemical message can reach every member in the entire hive in 48 hours, sometimes less. Has your workplace ever made a decision and taken action that quickly?

As mentioned before, the queen uses pheromones to make her presence known and establish hive unity. She also uses them to stimulate many worker bee activities, attract potential mates, and regulate the drone population.

Worker bees produce pheromones that help guide foraging bees back to the hive, or to a new hive when swarming. They use the alarm pheromone to incite a colony-wide attack on a potential threat. Another pheromone prompts them to begin the process of creating a new queen. Even larvae and pupae secrete pheromones to communicate their gender, stage of development, and nutritional needs to worker bees.

Another and perhaps more well-known way honeybees communicate is through “dancing.” Forager bees who return to the hive perform a series of intricate movements that relay specific information to their sisters about where a booming nectar, pollen, or water source is located. This is known as the waggle dance.

There are two more dance moves associated with foraging. The “shake” is done when nectar sources are so abundant that more foragers are needed. The “tremble” happens when so much nectar has been brought back to the hive that more ripener bees are needed to process the nectar into honey.

Maybe instead of meetings we should just have dance parties?

Team-building Exercises

While each worker has her own specialized duties, there also are shared responsibilities that take some serious coordination of the whole hive.

Individually, honeybees are cold blooded, but the honeybee colony together is warm blooded — it can make its temperature different from the surrounding environment. Maintaining a proper temperature in the hive is crucial, and this can only be accomplished with teamwork.

If it is too hot, worker bees collect water and deposit it in the hive. They then fan the air with their wings, evaporating the water and cooling the air. Other bees exit the hive to remove body heat and create space for the cooler air to circulate. If it is too cold, the worker bees cluster together and vibrate their bodies to generate heat. They’ll rotate in and out of the center of the cluster so everyone keeps warm.

I don’t know about your office, but at Savannah Bee Company, no one can agree on a temperature, let alone work together to keep it consistent.

Swarming is another intricate colony-wide activity that requires excellent communication and teamwork to achieve. Prior to swarming, the queen lays eggs — one of which will become the future queen — in specially designed cells created by builder bees. Attendants prepare her for flight, lightening her up by reducing her feedings.

Then, the queen and about half the colony perform a mass exodus and alight on an interim location. With the swarm clustering around the queen, scouts are sent out to inspect potential nearby permanent locations. When the scouts return, they share their findings through dancing. The colony democratically decides which location to call home, and the swarm relocates en masse to start anew.

Strength In Numbers

Today, International Women’s Day, let’s agree to begin our journey to become more like a superorganism, allowing our collective wisdom to guide us. Let harmonious contribution and respectful communication be our motto at work and in our personal lives. And let’s support one another for the greater good instead of just our own.