Honeybee gender and reproduction do not work the way you think they do.
New research into one peculiarity of honeybee parentage, expertly explained by bug expert GrrlScientist, found something amazing and strange. The discovery: a female honeybee with two fathers and no mother has been discovered in nature. On the other hand, everything about honeybee parentage and reproduction is completely bonkers, at least by our comparatively boring mammal standards.
Honeybees, along with other bees, wasps, and ants, are haplodiploids, a term referring to the way these animals determine the sex of their offspring. Toss out everything you learned or should have learned in Sex Ed; basically, none of it applies here. In short: female haplodiploids come from fertilized eggs, the same way frogs and fish do, but males come from unfertilized eggs. That means that male honeybees literally have no father because their entire set of chromosomes come only from their mother, the queen. But they do have a grandfather, because the queen, a female, was the result of a fertilized egg. Male honeybees are used pretty much only for sperm, which the queen stores; they don’t fight, gather food, or really do much of anything.
It gets even more wild. Bees, unlike humans, demonstrate polyspermy, which means, as you might guess, that more than one sperm can enter an egg. (Mammals like humans have mechanisms to prevent this from happening.) But polyspermy interactions don’t produce twins; sometimes, the multiple sperm cells are simply used as more raw material to build tissue. Other times, though, they create gynandromorphic bees.
Gynandromorphic organisms contain both male and female characteristics. Not necessarily sexual characteristics, like hermaphroditic organisms, but other characteristics. It’s mostly seen in insects, where you might have, say, a moth that has one wing patterned like a male of its species and the other wing patterned like a female of its species. For bees, they might have a female body, but male eyes, which are enormous.
Scientists at the University of Sydney decided to look at (read: dissect) a selection of these gynandromorphic bees, to see what’s going on with them. They discovered some wild parentage: some bees had two or even three fathers, plus a mother. But one bee, which didn’t look nearly as strange as the others, turned out to be much stranger. Genetic testing, similar to the way human DNA tests are done, revealed that this one bee had two fathers and no mother at all.
The researchers see no other option for that bee’s parentage than two-sperm fusion, a phenomenon which has never been found before in bees. As to why, the researchers think it might just be a weird possibility with no real biological or evolutionary advantage—just something that happens because it technically can. The two-father bee, for what it’s worth, was female.