Don’t laugh! They’re not!
I always have to preface this story with that because that is usually how people react when I tell them about the social Hymenoptera. Hymenoptera is an order of insects containing ants, bees, and wasps, and it has many social species. Hymenoptera is my favourite insect order for any number of reasons (e.g. it has some beautiful members). But one of its awesome aspects is that Hymenoptera is a prime example of haplodiploidy.
“So that is a fun word, standingoutinmyfield,” you say, “but what does it mean!?!?!”
Haplodiploidy is a reproductive system whereby the males are haploids (with only one set of chromosomes) and the females are diploids (with both sets of chromosomes). (In contrast, both male and female humans have a full set of chromosomes, and only the sex chromosome (X or Y) differs between sexes.)
This results from the fact that males develop from unfertilized eggs, and females develop from fertilized eggs.
But the implications are even cooler, because in social Hymenoptera (like honeybees) this means that the queen is the mother, and all of the non-reproductive caste (i.e. workers, soldiers, etc.) are sisters! Assuming the queen has only mated once, all of the workers also have the same father, meaning they are extremely closely related (read: kin selection).
But male bumblebees (or honeybees) and males in other social Hymenoptera do not work. They are known as drones, and they do not contribute to the health of the colony, they do not provide food for offspring. They do not build honeycombs or collect nectar or pollen.
They just sit on a flower, sipping nectar, and wait for a reproductively active female to fly by, at which point they fly out and mate with her.
When I tell this to people, they often start laughing. “True story!” one woman says. Another rolls her eyes, “Just like Jason!” she says. (The other elbows her discretely in the ribs and blushes.)
A nearby human male guffaws, “It is just like a guy picking up chicks at a bar! Have a drink, wait for one to fly by!”
“Males are useless,” says another.
“NO! Males are not useless!” I will cry, “It is true they do not work, but they are essential for the life cycle of the bees! They are needed to continue on the next generation.”
“Typical,” someone says, and they walk away laughing.
Oh well. I guess we should all think about parthenogenesis.