Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees

In a marriage ceremony from a 1940s black-and-white comedy, the priest begins by invoking the birds and the bees. He keeps getting interrupted, which is an in-joke because the two at the altar are really supposed to marry other people. However, the real joke is the reference to birds and bees and marriage.

As this is spring, where a young ‘uns fancy turns to thoughts of love, and this is 2021, where some still point to Nature as evidence that heterosexual monogamy and genders are rigid, it’s worth thinking about. Because then they mention the birds and bees. Well, what do we all know about bees?

Research shows queen bees communicate honestly. Photo by Bernardo Ni, Penn State.

If Not Three Genders, then Three of Something

When a mommy bee and daddy bee love each other very much… oh, no. That’s not how it works. Let’s go to sixth grade biology. There are queen bees, worker bees, and drone bees. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say we’re taught that the queens and workers are females and the drones are male. All the drones do is help in reproduction. They try to mate with queens. If they’re successful, they die from the experience. If they aren’t able to mate and still hang around the hive when food gets scarce, the workers will kick them out, and they die. Limited functionality, you might say. They do contribute to genetic diversity, which some explanations say counters the idea that the drone is the “most ineffective and unhelpful bee in the hive.” But the genetic diversity comes about because the queen mates with multiple drones, so arguably the queen is providing the diversity.

The queens are larger–distinguishable from other bees–and mate with drones outside the home colony. They return and lay tons of eggs (200,000 a year for 2-4 years). The worker bees prepare the combs for nesting, clean the hive, feed the larvae royal jelly, honey, and pollen, fly off to find food, communicate with other bees over where the best pollen is, defend the hive or fight off intruders, recruit other bees to join their colony, and regulate temperature by flapping their wings when it’s hot and huddling together when it’s cold. In other words, workers do everything except for mate and lay eggs.

Darwin, who was a beekeeper, looked at these three differently-sized insects who each fulfilled different roles in their community, and labelled them three different genders. He thought that workers–who don’t participate in mating–were neuter. Modern biologists explain that these are really three different castes, but only two genders. The workers and queens apparently have virtually the same genome, which categorizes them both as female. They do look different from each other, so their genes aren’t identical, but similar.

diagram of bee chromosome
How bee reproduction works at chromosome level, from Wikipedia

In humans–and I’m dumbing this down for non-biological people like me–gender is determined by that combination of X and Y gene on the chromosome ((XX female; XY male). There is something similar in bees, and new research has identified it as the complementary sex determination (csd) gene. In the bee egg’s csd gene, if there are two different bits (alleles, for you biologists), then the bee will be female. If there’s only one, it will be male. (If there two identical alleles, then the hatched bee will be eaten–ew). The hatched single-allele bee will be diploid, and only have one set of chromosomes to contribute=male. The two-different-allele bee will be haploid with two sets of chromosomes=female.

As for how bees choose new queens, I read that it might be random, it might be done through democracy (that’s the textbook’s word, not mine), or it might be that the egg cells themselves are shaped differently for queens. Either the queen or the workers are choosing the next queen. It’s not the drones, for sure.

My takeaway from all this is that the idea of gender seems a little more fluid than just male and female. Genetically, queens and workers aren’t identical. They certainly have different functions. Moreover, even if they are three castes and two genders, they’re not a single male and single female, mating for life. So as a model in a human marriage ceremony, not a great example.

Social Not Sexual Monogamy … Well Not Even Social, in Birds

Smple summaries of reproduction across the kingdoms of living things quickly point out that monogamy is rare–perhaps 3-5%. Many of these articles describe a variety of behavior among various species, where males don’t remain with the females after mating, where females live in groups to raise young with males outside, or where male-female pairs raise young that were fertilized by others. Birds are often pointed out as an exception, mentioning that 90% of birds are monogamous.

However, that’s social monogamy, with a single male and female pair staying to raise the young in a single year. Sexual monogamy in birds is also rare. For example, only between one in 10 to one in 3 eggs in a cardinal’s nest have genes that match the male “parent.” In another experiment, female blackbirds who were paired with sterilized males were still laying eggs, presumably not “dad’s.” What’s funny in many of these articles is the imposition of human religious/social standards on the behavior. E.g. “The females couldn’t chirp their way out of that one.” or “It’s a soap opera…” or calling the differential pairing of females with new males the following year a “divorce.”

Drawing from The New Yorker

In other words, Mother Nature designed bird monogamy to be rare–it might not be a single male and female and, when it is, they don’t last for more than a season. That’s Natural. Yet, humans try to characterize this Natural behavior as Un-Natural based on human social norms. Then, we point to bird species’ behavior as our model for say, marriage, by saying that male-female monogamy is Natural, just look at birds. Yes, some birds do mate for life, but the numbers seem to run in the 2-3% range.

Mind you, I personally am socially and sexually monogamous, so I’m not advocating some other type of system. It’s just silly to make arguments that refer to Nature as supporting our social constructs.

Gender Diversity in Nature is REALLY Diverse

We can play this game all day. Elephants are raised in communities dominated by females, headed by a particularly strong matriarch. Teenage males are kicked out when they’re a certain age to rove in the wild and mate when they can, but adult male elephants don’t hang with the females. Female orcas rule the pod, even the males that remain with the family unit. Female spotted hyenas are bigger than the men. Male lions rule when it comes to reproductive rights, but the females do all the other work and make all the other decisions. In many species, the female is bigger than the male.

Elephants wait for their one-tusked matriarch. Photo at elephantvoices.org

Planaria and amoebas reproduce asexually. Lots of different types of fish–sea horses, clownfish, eels–can change their gender. In many species, the males raise the young. Also, beetle species are so prevalent that of the 1.5 million species of living things, every 5th one is a beetle. If anything is really the dominant thing in Nature, it would be beetles. But I find beetles freaky, so I’m not going to research their mating habits for you. Suffice it to say, it’s probably not permanently monogamous, and there are dung beetles, so that’s all we need to know.

This idea that genders are always fixed, that gender roles are always fixed, and that humans should follow the animal kingdom examples as proof of the above doesn’t last more than two words into a google search on “examples of animal homosexuality…animal gender fluidity… animal diverse reproduction…” The resulting titles always include the word “surprising,” but the only thing surprising is that we get surprised by the diversity that is out there.

In our so-called scientific history, we also had antiquated ideas that any five-year-old now knows to be false, such as that people with darker skin were mentally deficient or that women were prone to nervous disorders or that people who had a different epicanthic fold than those of European-ancestry were better at geometry. All hogwash.

If we want to look to Nature for examples, we have plenty of examples of successful perpetuation of the species that include multiple castes (or genders), multiple roles played by parents, multiple parents raising children in different ways. The next time someone starts invoking the “birds and the bees” as the model, just ask whether they mean the part where the useless males die after mating or where the queen bee who reproduces has the rest of the society working on her behalf. Are we talking the blackbirds raising other birds’ children or how menopausal orcas become the leader of their community? Because when someone starts to spout that “nature tells us that one male and one female” stuff, the birds and the bees say, “keep us out of it.”

Besides, in those movies, the marital pair is really supposed to marry other people, after all.

Bee: not so monogamous and heteronormative as previously believed. Cartoon from redbubble, Soft silence.

3 Replies to “Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees”

  1. I wonder if the three question marks stand for ‘defuck — I have sons, and only sons; I say things I didn’t used-to say. Great information!

Leave a Reply