Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker worried about losing her. Grand Funk Railroad wanted to steal her away. Stevie Ray Vaughn liked the way she “grooved” her hips, but Sly and the Family Stone feared her “mean sting.”
In country music and heavy metal, in Memphis blues and Scottish ballads and Brooklyn rap, the queen bee has been celebrated as, well, the queen bee. She’s the hottest chick in town, the ruler of the roost, the top of the heap.
“She rocks me to my soul,” croons Taj Mahal.
His “Queen Bee,” by the way, is my favorite of these musical tributes. Here’s a cool video of Taj Mahal playing the song on a horse-drawn carriage winding through the streets of New Orleans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjTEkhXgu_4#action=share.
I’m sorry to report, though, that the real queen bee lives a very different life from the one portrayed in popular song.
It’s been two weeks since my bees came. They’re getting along fine, doing what bees do: building honeycomb, collecting pollen and storing nectar. The queens in each of two colonies are also doing what they’re supposed to: laying eggs.
And that’s all they do.
The thousands and thousands of other female bees in the hives – except for a couple of hundred freeloading male drones, all are sisters – will spend various parts of their lives fulfilling different vital roles. They’ll nurse the young, clean the hive of debris and the dead, build comb, store nectar and pollen, make honey and guard the hive against enemies. When they mature and develop fully working stingers, the bees start the most glamorous part of their short lives as foragers, going out into the world to collect what the hive needs to survive. These are the bees you see in your garden moving from flower to flower. They’ll do that for a couple of weeks until they literally wear out their wings and die.
Every bee has a chore in the highly organized world of the hive. The queen’s only job is to lay fertilized eggs. As many as 2,000 a day. Day after day for two to four years.
She knows nothing of the outside world. As a youngster, she ventured briefly outside the hive to mate. After connecting with as many as 20 drones and storing their sperm, she returned, likely never to leave again.
She can’t even digest her own food. Attendant bees do it for her and feed her. How sad is that?
Make no mistake about it, though, the queens are the most important bees in my hives. The colonies’ futures depend on them. All the other bees take their cues from the queens. Without them, my hives would falter and could collapse.
But would they? Unlike the queen bees of song, the queens in my hives aren’t really in control. If one of them was weak or diseased, the other bees would sense that from the pheromones the queen was releasing. These chemical substances secreted by bees’ exocrine glands trigger different behavioral or physiological responses by other bees in the hive. Think of them as a wireless communication system. Pheromones allow the bees to coordinate the complex activities of the hive. Almost everything they do is guided by these chemical signals.
If the queen’s pheromones are weak, the bees will respond. In the communistic society of the bee hive nothing matters except the survival of the colony. Not even, in the end, the queen. Sensing a failing queen, nurse bees make a new one by feeding several baby bees a steady diet of royal jelly. Also called “bee milk,” it looks like white snot. More than half of it is water, the rest is a combination of proteins and sugars. Special glands in the heads of the nurse bees secrete the stuff, which gets fed to babies, instead of the normal diet of pollen and honey, to make new queens.
The first to hatch will kill the other developing queens in their cells by stabbing them with her stinger. Then, she and the other bees will kill the old queen, and the colony will go on stronger than before.
Freakwater, an alternative country band from Chicago, puts it this way:
I’m gonna be the Queen Bee
And in the beautiful world I see
Way up in a hollow tree, perfect idolatry
Little bees on their knees
Sayin’ “Baby, you’re the Queen Bee”
As long as you keep laying eggs, day after day after day. Falter and you better watch your back because those bees on their knees will get up and turn on you.