The Birds and the Bees

Bee on Anthemis tinctoria
Bee on Anthemis tinctoria

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and once again the topic of love is in the air. We often mention “explaining the birds and the bees” as a euphemism for discussing… well… sex. But is this valid? Is there anything similar between the mating habits of people and birds and bees?

Yes, the goal is often the same—babies! However, the way members of a species choose one or more mates, and then rear their young, varies not only between birds and bees, but even among bird species within the same family.

So, how do the birds and the bees “do it”?

Bee family structure is completely different from that of humans. The queen bee is the only one who lays eggs. In fact, that’s her entire life purpose. She lays 1,500 eggs a day, so she sure doesn’t have time for much else.

The rest of the female bees are sterile, kept that way by the queen’s pheromones. These bees make honeycomb, tend larvae, tend young drones, tend the queen, clean the hive, gather nectar, gather pollen, gather propolis[1], evaporate nectar, cap full cells of honey, defend the hive, starve the drones, lay drone eggs, and move larvae who will develop into a new queen. During the summer they work themselves to death in 20 – 40 days. (In the winter they live several months.) Could the comparison between bees and humans be a reflection on someone’s opinion that women do all the work?

The males, or drones, exist only to mate with the queen. Although they may live one to three months, they only get to mate once. The rigorous physical activity involved in mating literally rips open their abdomens, and they quickly expire. Since they compete heavily for that one chance, it must be worth it, for a drone bee. Let’s be glad we aren’t like the bees!

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds
Broad-tailed Hummingbirds

How about the birds?

There are as many ways of raising a bird family as there are kinds of birds. They may be monogamous, polygamous, or polyandrous. At least to the casual observer, most birds stick with the same mate for the current breeding season. However, closer study indicates that there also may be some surreptitious fooling around in the bushes.

Penguin parents, as in the majority of bird species, share the onerous chores of incubating the egg(s) and feeding the young. Cowbirds and cuckoos lay their eggs in other species’ nests, then leave and never look back. Coots kill their excess offspring, while Barrow’s Goldeneye females will raise several adopted broods in addition to their own. Obviously, there are many ways birds go about attracting a mate, building a nest (or not), and raising their offspring.

For a frazzled human parent, this complexity could have a silver lining. By the time you explain all about the birds and the bees, your kids may have forgotten their original question.

[1] Propolis is a natural resin gathered from trees to be used in hive construction.

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