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Queen Bees Blinded After Mating

September 13, 2019

Years back I had a friend with knowledge in marketing look at my blog and give some advice on how to make it more effective at gaining a larger share of blog readers.  The first piece of advice was to narrow down the topics of my blogs.  As he said over and over–focus, focus, focus.

It was surely the right advice to give, but the problem is, of course, that I have too many interests and far too much curiosity about almost everything.   And what I find of interest on any given day is what makes it to a post.  So that is why we now have a post on bees, and how much more interesting can the insect world be than the knowledge about blinding queen bees.  (For the record this is the 7th post on bees at CP.)

A queen bee stashes all the sperm she’ll need to make a lifetime’s worth of babies in a few days. Let’s just start there. This virgin queen flies out from her nest to mate with as many as 90 male drones mid-flight (though usually more like a dozen), then returns to her hive with a stash of up to 100 million sperm cells in her oviducts. Later she’ll pare that down to just five or six million to store in her spermatheca. The drones, meanwhile, die—their abdomens have literally been ripped open by the mating process, and they’ve served their only purpose to their species.

But if you’re a drone who’s already mated with the flighty queen in question, you don’t want her to go out finding other dudes to add to her sperm collection. You want your sperm to get passed along. Every other male who mates with her decreases the fraction of offspring that will get your genes.

And so drones blind the queens to keep them hive-bound. 

The toxin that makes vision go blurry is actually just one of some 300 proteins in bee seminal fluid that seem to have some effect on queens. Boris Baer, a professor of entomology at UC Riverside, and his team have been investigating what these peptides might do for the last decade. Previously they’d also found a protein that attacked sperm from other males, a tactic that’s common amongst insects, but this new toxin was a step up in the sexual arms race that is bee mating season.

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