Worker bees won't construct cells for male honeybees until their colony grows to a certain population - about 4,000 workers, all told. For the first time, biologists at Cornell University have identified colony size as a factor that triggers a hive's reproductive cycle, the scientists reported recently in the journal Naturwissenschaften.
Four thousand bees is relatively small for a colony, Michael L. Smith, a biology graduate student and author of the study, tells The Dodo, whereas a full-fledged hive of bees numbers 20,000 to 40,000 strong.
Bee colonies aren't always ready to breed, as young colonies must first allocate their resources to growing in size. But once a colony hits about 4,000 members - though this is an approximation, rather than a magic number -"it's as if the colony had entered puberty," Smith says. Worker bees, the non-reproducing females in a colony, start to construct what Smith and his colleagues call "drone comb": the cells of the hive where the male drones will hatch. (Full-grown drones, after hatching, leave to seek out virgin queens and disseminate their hive's genes.)
The drone combs are the larger cells around the edge of the honeycomb on the right. (Photo: Madeleine M. Ostwald)