Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Presidential Inauguration Honey Bee Style

An inauguration is the final event in a long and tedious process called the U.S. presidential election. Like many human activities, even the election of a U.S. president is not without parallel in the insect world. In this case an apt comparison is the process of replacing a queen in a colony of honey bees.

I am not the first person to suggest that observations of honey bees might be enlightening relative to human activities. For example, William Shakespeare in "Henry V" uses the multiple activities of honey bees as possible justification for the young king to elect to invade France without worrying about the ability of England to prosecute a war on two fronts.

To me, the process whereby a new queen takes over a honey bee colony, called supersedure by scientists, is nearly as difficult and raucous as the selection of a U.S. president. But I'll let you judge the accuracy of that assertion.

For starters, both honey bee queens and U.S. presidents have minimum requirements to qualify for their respective roles. To become the queen, a honey bee must be, well, a female. This was a requirement that Shakespeare didn't know or -- possibly for political reasons -- chose to ignore. He called the leader of the hive a king. The U.S. president must be a natural-born citizen, be at least 36 years of age, and have been a permanent resident of the United States for 14 or more years.

Both U.S. presidential hopefuls and queen bees-to-be go through a developmental process. In honey bees that process begins as an egg. In social insects, such as the honey bee, fertilized eggs become females. Unfertilized honey bee eggs become males. A fertilized honey bee egg has a double set of chromosomes, the right stuff as it turns out to become a female bee and a potential queen.

In similar fashion, a potential U.S. presidential candidate must have generated some stuff on the résumé in order to qualify for a run at the highest office of the land. In recent decades that means experience as a governor, a senator or vice president. But having the right stuff on the résumé isn't enough for potential queen bees or presidential hopefuls. Both the queen bee and the U.S. president, it appears, are the proper combination of both nature and nurture, and a fair amount of luck.

The potential queen bee is nurtured as an immature by being fed a diet of royal jelly by the workers in the hive. The potential U.S. presidential candidate puts in place an exploratory team and begins fundraising activities. In both situations several pretenders to the throne exist. In the honey bee colony, a number of queens are being produced, and in the presidential election several candidates enter the primary races.

At this point, the presidential aspirants campaign in primary states and try to knock competitors out of the race. In the honey bee colony, after the first new queen emerges as an adult, workers in the hive destroy other potential queens before they emerge. If two queens have emerged at the same time, they are forced by the workers to fight until one is stung to death. In the run for the U.S. president, this is comparable to the general election. In both cases an individual to be the new leader is determined.

At this time, the new U.S. leader must make final preparations to assume the duties of the highest office in the land. Likewise, the new queen must prepare to rule the hive. The president-elect puts in place a transition team and begins to consider individuals for a cabinet. The new queen must leave the hive and go on a mating flight during which she will mate several times and acquire enough sperm to last her for a lifetime.

In due time the new queen and the new president will assume their duties. At this point the old queen and the old president relinquish the reins of power. The old queen is no longer pampered by the loyal minions of the colony, is treated roughly and is forced to leave the hive. She leaves with some old workers and attempts to start a new hive -- a social-insect process known as swarming. In the hive the workers begin to pamper the new queen.

In presidential politics the old president is called a lame duck, and he and his staff prepare to depart the White House. The new president is inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance and becomes the center of attention. The ex-president is escorted to a waiting helicopter to fly off into the sunset to concentrate on things such as memoirs, legacies and presidential libraries. And that is how it is with U.S. presidents and honey bee queens -- revered today and forgotten tomorrow!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox