Friday Weird Science: the Bees and the Bees

Oct 09 2009 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Today's Friday Weird Science is going up late, because of extenuating circumstances. Sci-cat, Sci's constant blogging companion (someone has to keep those papers and books warm and furry!), managed to hop up on something Sci thought she could not reach, and stand curiously over a burning candle, wondering where that smell of burning fur was coming from. All would be lost had not I noticed the smell, spied the cat, and immediately dumped her in the sink where I happened to be doing dishes. Sci-cat STILL does not realize what danger she was in, and is now angry at Sci for yelling and soaking her with water. Small minds...
Sci is not burning candles anymore, despite the fact that they were pumpkin scented and awesome. Sci-home now smells like burned fur. And Sci then needed some drinks, and Sci-cat needed some treats, to calm them both down following the potential loss of Sci's furry blogging companion and paperweight.
On the other hand, I think I just found a GREAT excuse not to go on a date: "I'm sorry, I just CAN'T tonight, my cat is on fire..."
Today's weird science is HISTORICAL weird science, and is an AWESOME paper sent to me by the charming and handsome gg of SkullsintheStars. At first he wondered if we were close enough for him to send me a paper about bee sex. We ARE that close, gg, of course we are! 🙂
And yes, it's about bee sex. OLD FASHIONED bee sex. It's a paper from 1777, and so old that half the 's's are 'f's. This makes the paper even more amusing, because now, rather than reading "Discoveries on the Sex of Bees", I got to read "Difcoverief of the Sex of Bees". Whenever Sci reads one of these old papers, I want to pronounce the extra "f"s like "th"s and so I read the whole thing in my mind with a lisp. Debraw, J. "Difcoveries on the Sex of Bees, explaining the manner in which their species is propagated; with an account of the utility that may be derived from thofe Difcoveries by the actual application of them to practice". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1777.
Tempting as it if, Sci will not write the rest of the post like thif. Though it would give her many laughf.
And there's one other thing about this paper. It's completely and utterly wrong. But other than that, it's really awesome, and a testimony to this guy's sheer perseverance.

To talk to you about how exactly this paper turned out to be incorrect, we're going to really quickly study the birds and the bees of bee sex. Which I think makes it the bees and the bees. Here we go:
1) The current queen bee of a colony figures it's time to pass on the crown. She lays a series (usually there is more than one) of eggs in "queen bee cups". These, unlike the regular cells in a honeycomb (which house normal, boring old bees), are positioned on top of the flattened comb and perpendicular to it, like this:
queen bee1.jpg
(From wikipedia, which appears to have the best pics on this topic)
2) The differently positioned queen bee cups are treated differently from normal egg cells. They are fed only royal jelly, which is a protein-rich secretion made in glands on the heads of adult bees. it is also a substance now used to make facial moisturizer.
(Sci finds this really hilarious. When she first saw Sci-Mom using moisturizer with "royal jelly" she said "EW! Do you know what that IS!?" Sci-Mom was a little taken aback. Sci now has to admit, however, that the Burt's Bees moisturizer with Royal Jelly is one hell of a moisturizer. She got over the "jelly" part. Also, as per new laws on the subject, I don't receive anything from Burt's Bees that I don't pay their rather exorbitant prices for.)
Anyway. So the baby queens are fed only royal jelly, and because of the positioning perpendicular to the rest of the colony, will develop vertically with her head positioned downward.
3) Sometimes, as the new queens are developing, the old queen will get out along with a swarm, leaving the hive for the new queen, though sometimes they will leave after the new queen is born. The new queen emerges a "virgin queen" (which makes me want to call them princesses or Elizabeths or something). If there are other potential queens about (as usually there are other queen cells), the virgin queens will have a big melee match to the death for control of the hive. This includes ripping up other queen cells, etc. If the old queen is still resident, she will be allowed to live and continue laying, but she will soon exit stage left anyway.
4) Following the royalty death match, the new queen prepares for her deubt. She flies out on a nice, sunny day, and finds a "drone congregation area" (sadly, I'm not sure how these are found, but I'm sure it involves chemical signaling). An orgy ensues, and the queen continues going out there until she's fully mated. The queen bee can store sperm from these few days of mating for the rest of her life (between two and seven YEARS), and will use it to make all further bees for the hive.
5) At this stage, the new queen takes up residence and starts laying. And the old queen better get herself out in a HURRY. If she doesn't the other bees will CUDDLE HER TO DEATH. This sounds rather nice, but actually it involves other bees closing in around you until you die of overheating.
6) Queen gets fed, lays eggs (as many as 2000 per day). May or may not wish ardently for a career of her own. Does no vacuuming.
Now of course, we know all of this, and know how this occurs. In 1777, however, they had no idea how this worked. Most particularly, no one had ever seen a "drone congregation area" and so had never seen a queen bee mate. They had seen drones in the colony of course, but had never once laid eyes on bee sex, and drones were thought to generally be pretty useless. Some scientists thought that bees simply reproduced asexually, while others thought that the presence of the male released an aura of reproduction into the aether, which the queen then picked up on and got fertilized by (riiiiiiiight...).
Luckily for us all, Debraw (the guy who wrote this article) was convinced that this wasn't the case. He was completely sure that bees propagated by the traditional, messy means. And he was determined to find out how.
And here is where you have to admire the guy's brilliance. He kept a huge colony of bees (I guess for his own studies in general, though who knows, we all like honey), and he got a whole set of GLASS BEEHIVES made. As you might know, cultivation of bees involves fake hives, to house them. By making glass beehives, Debraw could look in literally every day on what all of his bees were doing (I think this might have been made successful by the fact that he was in England, and so the glass beehives stood less of a chance of overheating, which would have been pretty detrimental). And he watched the hives. Every day. For two years. Impressive.
And no matter how hard this poor guy looked, he was completely unable to see bee sex. What he DID see, however, was lines of bees forming over the egg cells, and some of the bees dipping their butts in and out of the cells. This was compounded by some new literature that Debraw read on the subject of drones. People used to think that drones were a lot smaller than regular worker bees, but recent findings suggested that was not the case, and Debraw thought the beed dipping their butts into the cells were in fact drones, fertilizing the eggs in the same way that fish or amphibians might.
But of course, he had to test his finding. So he took all the bees from a colony, and dunked them in water. This caused the bees to pass out, and he then carefully set aside all the ones he thought were drones. He then let the queen and workers go back to the colony. He was amazed, however, when the queen continued laying eggs, and some days later, new bees began to emerge. He then had two hypotheses: (1) that the queen could store sperm (he ALMOST HAD IT!) and (2) that there were some male bees still left, as he could still bees sticking their butts in cells.
He dunked them again, and sure enough, caught some drones that had passed the first time around. When he put the queen and workers back into the hives, he noticed the queen still laying. But a few days later, the entire hive took off, and tried to fight their way into another one! Debraw hypothesized that the bees were upset over the loss of their drones and fighting in order to obtain more. Probably is this not what happened, and my personal hypothesis as to why the hive failed has more to do with repeated water dunkings than loss of drones. Still, Debraw took his results, and based on the data he had, drew the obvious conclusion that the drones were fertilizing the eggs after they were laid.
We now know that this isn't right (the bees going into and out of the cells are feeding the eggs), but based on the results he had and the literature at the time, this is not a bad conclusion to draw. He saw the queen laying, and he saw her stop laying and the whole colony leave once all the drones were gone. It's a very reasonable conclusion that the hive needed the drones to fertilize the eggs. And without actually seeing the queen mate with a drone, he couldn't have realized what might really be going on. He did some good science, but he just couldn't see the real thing happening. And that's ok. He still contributed a lot of information on how bees behave and proposed new methods of cultivating them. He did pretty good.
Debraw, J., & Maskelyne, N. (1777). Discoveries on the Sex of Bees, Explaining the Manner in Which Their Species is Propagated; With an Account of the Utility That May Be Derived from Those Discoveries by the Actual Application of Them to Practice. By Mr. John Debraw, Apothecary to Addenbro Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1776-1886), 67 (1), 15-32 DOI: 10.1098/rstl.1777.0004

14 responses so far

  • rosen creature says:

    Thank you, Sci, for making me laugh about typesetting so hard I was tearing up, and for letting me know that my cat is not the only one who has, on occaision, set himself on fire. Hooray for Fridays at Neurotopia 🙂

  • tmaxPA says:

    Really really cool.

  • tmaxPA says:

    I meant to say, except for the cat part. I hope SciKitty recovers.

  • cicely says:

    "No, I swear it's true! My cat set fire to my homework!"
    Well-wishing to both the indignant Sci-cat, and the unsettled Sci-nerves. 🙂

  • FiSH says:

    First of all, Sci, I'm a fan. You are the one reason that I have found that blogging is at all worth-while. Now, I love this random article, although the content is not what really caught my attention. When I read your post, it struck me what this says about modern communication in science, when an obscure paper on Bee Sex (my appologies to Mr. DeBraw, but this was probably even obscure in 1777 - I imagine it being read before the Society in front of perhaps 10 grizzled old men, half of whom were asleep) is easily found and discussed in a wide forum (the Austrian Monk's work may not have been lost to the world for 40 years if the Natural History Society of Brunn had a website). Sadly, I also wonder what it says about a couple of my own papers that have yet to be cited.

  • Michele says:

    Loved the blog, story-telling makes science far more compelling, even 18th-century tomes about bees.
    Best wishes for quick hair re-growth to sci-cat. My own feline paperweight and writing companion once spotted a fire in a neighboring apartment, alerted me, and saved the day. That event also required drinks and tasty-tuna treats in the aftermath.

  • gg says:

    On the other hand, I think I just found a GREAT excuse not to go on a date: "I'm sorry, I just CAN'T tonight, my cat is on fire..."

    There was an old Dilbert cartoon much along this line, which stated that unacceptable suitors deserve specific yet implausible rejections: "I'm sorry; tonight I have to wax the cat."

    and is an AWESOME paper sent to me by the charming and handsome gg of SkullsintheStars. At first he wondered if we were close enough for him to send me a paper about bee sex. We ARE that close, gg, of course we are! 🙂

    Aw, now you're just trying to get me to blush! 🙂

  • Scicurious says:

    Thanks so much for the kind words for Sci-cat! She's fine, if a bit singed, and her luxurious tummy fur will regrow, and begin shedding, in no time I am sure. She would be totally grateful for your good wishes as well, except she's a cat and she doesn't DO that.
    Sci, however, is still convinced she had ten years taken off her life. 🙂

  • Joe says:

    "Royal Jelly" is also sold for consumption. In his book "Don't Get Duped" Larry Furness (MD) says patients sometimes ask if they should take it. He replies "Well, if you want to double in size and ovulate 2,000 times a day ..."

  • Joe says:

    BTW, everyone should know that any personal care product with "royal jelly" contains it it homeopathic amounts.

  • Lurker says:

    Hi Sci,
    Glad both you and SciKitty are fine. Regarding the candles, may I suggest an enclosure like this one even though they're not cheap:
    for your candles burning needs?

  • Jeffrey says:

    I've been doing a bit of research lately that's forced me to go back to the 1700s and 1800s too. It's amazing the stuff you'll find sometimes...
    And on the subject of candles: it's not as pretty, but candle warmers will release the scent without flame and your home will smell like you left a pumpkin-cat pie in the oven too long in no time.

  • I had a friend who drank Royal Jelly in little canisters like a protein / vitamin shot. So gross. Moisturiser, maybe, drinking it? Hell no.

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