Fatherhood can be complicated. Fatherhood in the beehive can be more complicated.
We know that the beehive is a matriarchal society. When it comes to the honeybee, girls rule the world. Drones, the males in the hive, don’t really do a lot, other than eat up honey and mate with the queen. They can’t even feed or clean up after themselves. But that’s okay—we love them anyway!
There are only a lucky few drones who have the honor of being fathers, and those who make the cut die for the honor. The mid-air mating session with the queen ends when the drones go out in a blaze of glory, their top halves scattered on the ground below and their “important parts” still attached to the queen.
After mating with numerous drones, the queen returns to the hive with enough male genetic material to lay all her eggs. But first, she has to make a decision—does she need more workers or more drones? If she needs more workers (females), she will lay a fertilized egg. If she needs more drones (males), she will lay an unfertilized egg with no genetic material from her drone mating partners.
So, what does that mean? Female bees are the only ones who actually have a dad. Drones, though they are fathers, actually have no fathers. Genetically, they are male clones of their own mother (a “mama’s boy” joke feels appropriate here, but I won’t do it). However, technically, drones have a grandfather, because male bee DNA was used to create the queen that mothered the drones. See, complicated.
Sometimes fatherhood in the hive gets really convoluted. At the end of 2018, Newsweek and other outlets reported that scientists in Australia had found a female bee who had two strings of paternal DNA and no maternal DNA (1), meaning that bee was a result of two males and no female.
In the past, it was discovered that more than one strain of drone DNA could go into the development of one female honeybee egg during mating, meaning that a female bee could have two or more fathers. However, these scientists found one bee who had no mother at all. The terminology is all very complicated, but they believe this bee developed from a genetic mutation that caused a fusion of two strains of drone DNA, though they aren’t exactly sure yet how that happened. This bee technically had two fathers and no mother! These findings just show that there is always so much more to learn from our honeybee friends.
So this Father’s Day, thank a drone daddy for every worker bee you see flying around and doing that honorable pollinator work. And don’t forget to show some appreciation for all the dads in your lives! Happy Father’s Day!