What Makes My Colony a Superorganism?
Reading Time: 5 minutes
The suppression of individual needs is the trait that best defines a superorganism.
by Rusty Burlew A pair of hungry yellowjackets cases your beehive, patiently searching for an opening to the feast within. Noticing the menace, an alert honey bee releases a puff of alarm pheromone and fans the odor with her wings, asking for help.
The warning travels fast, along with heightened unease. Within moments, guard bees gather at the entrance, ready to fight to the death for the good of the colony. Individual bees suppress their own wants for the benefit of the group, and many will make the ultimate sacrifice.
The suppression of individual needs is the trait that best defines a superorganism. Even though each bee is a separate entity, the colony behaves as if it were one large, multicellular organism where each bee is like a single cell.
Honey bees Need Each Other
A unified response to danger is more effective than an individual response, just as an army is more effective than an individual soldier. Superorganisms are tightly knit societies that cooperate on many levels. Individuals do as they are told: They don’t shirk responsibility and they don’t call in sick. When the chemical summons arrives, they immediately get to work.
Individual honey bees cannot survive long on their own. A honey bee separated from her sisters — even if she’s well-fed and warm — will malinger and die. Despite having all the biological parts necessary to survive, communication and society are an essential part of her existence. She is no one without her family.
Many social insects are superorganisms
Honey bees are not the only superorganism. Various species of ants, bees, and wasps have cooperative colonies headed by a queen. And some large termite colonies have both a king and a queen.
Regardless of the species, most of these colonies communicate with chemical signals that elicit a specific response. A few species have specialized signals that combine several senses, such as the waggle dance of honey bees, which combines taste and vibration to give instructions.
Working together for the common good
A honey bee colony performs many activities that wouldn’t succeed unless everyone worked together. A good example is the thermoregulation of the brood nest. In order to keep the brood toasty warm, heater bees gather over the brood, press their thoraxes against the brood cells, and judder their flight muscles. This intense exercise produces heat that keeps the brood warm enough to develop normally. Even when no brood is present, a similar activity can keep the cluster of adults from freezing in winter.
Thermoregulation is also used by groups of bees for a type of defense known as balling. It occurs when many bees wrap themselves around an unwanted insect, such as an invading wasp or an unwelcome honey bee queen. The heat from the ball is so intense that the newcomer dies from hyperthermia.
Cooperation for food and health
When it comes to food collection, processing, and storing, a large group can accomplish much more than an individual. In fact, honey bees store so much food we beekeepers can harvest the overage and still leave plenty for the bees.
In contrast to honey bees, solitary bees work alone to accomplish brood rearing. Since each female must provide for her own brood, she can raise only a few young ’uns per year. And because there is no labor force to store food for winter, she cannot maintain a year-round colony. Instead, solitary bees spend most of their lives in hibernation.
Honey bees also work together to remove imperfect brood — those individuals suffering from diseases, birth defects, or injury. A superorganism prizes efficiency over individual lives, so the colony discards individuals that would burden resources or can’t contribute to colony welfare. This genetically controlled trait, often called hygienic behavior, is variable among different lines of bees.
Although selective removal of brood may seem harsh, individuals are equally hard on themselves. The term “altruistic suicide” is used to describe bees that fly out of the hive to die. The bees that sacrifice themselves seem to realize they can no longer contribute to the colony. They may be sick, injured, weak, or merely old. By flying away, they reduce disease transmission within the hive and protect their sisters from the dangerous task of removing dead bodies.
An expanded definition
Lately, the definition of superorganism has changed. Instead of being confined to a single species, now the word can refer to a mix of closely aligned species that work together for the good of the whole.
A good example of this new superorganism is you. Every person is made of human cells living in synchronicity with a mix of bacteria, viruses, and fungi called a microbiome. Our microbiome inhabits our skin, digestive tract, and other organs, providing a vibrant, evolving immune system that shields us from unfriendly invaders.
The members of our microbiome get food, water, minerals, and shelter from us, while we get specialized disease protection from them. We all live in harmony until the moment we get attacked by disease or pathogens. Instantly, the members of our microbiome put their lives on the line, battling the invaders for the good of the whole.
All creatures have microbiomes
All species have a similar suit of single-celled armor that fits them perfectly. So, while your personal microbiome protects you from the microbes on your goat, your goat has a microbiome that protects it from you. Although not failsafe, these mutual protections succeed most of the time.
Some beekeepers believe pesticides, especially fungicides, are dangerous to honey bees not because they harm the bees themselves, but because they kill a portion of the gut microbiome that is essential to the honey bee’s immune response.
Becoming a better beekeeper
A solid understanding of how a superorganism works will make you a better beekeeper and prevent you from misinterpreting your observations. When you understand how a colony operates, the loss of individuals makes more sense.
From a practical point of view, beekeepers should not become upset when they see a few dead bees near the hive or on the landing board. Often, these bees have paid the ultimate price to protect or sustain the colony. The “family” lives on because individual members protected it from danger.
Dead bees can be a sign that all is well inside the hive. A large healthy hive can easily lose a thousand members per day, especially during the late spring and early summer months. These members die from mishaps while foraging, including bad weather, insecticides, or attacks from insects, birds, and lawnmowers. They may also perish from pathogens, illness, or old age.
In the meantime, the queen is laying thousands of eggs per day and the workers are raising an incredible number of replacements. This is the way a of superorganism, and the reason they have persisted throughout the millennia.
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.