John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

The birds and the bees (except for the birds)

Someone left an old copy of The Sun (from 15-Sep-2009) in the changing room at work, and one of the stories caught my eye:


Scientists in Leeds are studying if the honey bee decline is due the queen bee's boring sex life."

Leaving aside the poor grammar, this struck me as a rather odd theory. It implies that the queens aren't motivated to have sex, and therefore they're having fewer offspring; that might make sense for animals, but honey bees reproduce in a very different way. Soon after a queen is born, she will have a "maiden flight", and go to a place where several drones (males) are flying around. They will then basically have an orgy: the queen has sex with several drones in a short space of time. This isn't a tender expression of love - it's so intense that the drones will all die in the process. Also, it all takes place in mid-air, so I think that the human equivalent would involve having sex while rollerblading. If that's boring, what the heck do the journalists get up to on a night out?

Anyway, after that initial flight, the queen will never have sex again. She stores all the sperm for the rest of her life (typically about five years), using it to lay female eggs. (Honey bees are haplodiploid, so females (XX) have a mother and a father but males (X) only have a mother; there's no Y chromosome.) So, it's not like giant pandas, where you have to persuade them to mate each time you want a new baby: as long as the queen does it once, that's enough.

The University of Leeds have a bit more detail about this on their website: Sex life may hold key to honeybee survival. That actually makes a lot more sense: they're concerned about lack of diversity in the bee population, i.e. inbreeding, which may make the bees more susceptible to infection. Based on that, I can see how The Sun converted it into their version, but I think that their summary is pretty misleading on its own.

I saw an amusing comic recently, which seems quite appropriate here: How Science Reporting Works. It could just be an amazing coincidence that the newspaper mangled a story on a subject that I know about. However, it seems more likely that their other reports are equally unreliable. Obviously this is The Sun, so I don't expect it to be a bastion of truth, but it does worry me that a large proportion of our (voting) population take it at face value.
Tags: bees, journalism, sex

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