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The Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew

It’s 2015 and anything is possible these days, but Ferrebeekeeper was still surprised to see a stolid old friend showcased in the international media for changing gender!  A while ago (for us humans) I blogged about The Fortingall yew, which may be more than 5000 years old (and may also be Great Britain’s oldest living thing).  The Fortingall yew is a male and has been so for several millennia.  However, this year the ancient tree started to produce berries from a limb near its crown.  Yews tend to be male or female, though it is not entirely unheard of for male conifers to have a female branch.  Of course the Fortingall Yew predates Christianity (and possibly the pyramids)…and it has returned from the dead, so a bit of gender bending may not be so noteworthy considering its astonishing nature.  Hopefully the berries will be fertile, I would like the tree to have some known offspring (although probably most of the yews in Great Britain are already descendants if it has been around for so long).

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right

The Fortingall Yew then and now: partying with Victorian dandies in 1822 on the left, and switching gender at present time on the right

A female velvet ant (mutillidae wasp)

Velvet ants (Mutillidae) are not actually ants at all—the insects are classified as wasps even though female velvet ants do not have wings and appear to be tiny furry colorful ants. The Mutillidae family of wasps—which is made up of more than 3000 species– illustrates how closely wasps, bees, and ants are actually related.   Male velvet ants look nothing like the females but are much larger winged creatures resembling other wasps.  So great is the sexual dimorphism between the genders that it took entomologists a tremendously long time to pair the females with the males, and in many species the connection has still not been made by science.  The genders do however both share a ridged structure called a stridulitrum, which can be rubbed or struck to produce chirps and squeaks for communication.

Male velvet ant (mutillidae wasp)

Female velvet ants are notable not just for their colorful fur but for their tremendously powerful sting which is so painful that they are nicknamed “cow killers.”  Male velvet ants look like wasps but do not sting.  The exoskeletons of velvet ants are tremendously hard to such an extent that some entomologists have reportedly found it difficult to drive pins through specimens.  The dense hard coating helps the females invade the underground burrows of larger bees and wasps which the velvet ants sting and lay eggs on.  When the velvet ant larvae hatch they feed on the paralyzed victims before metamorphosing into adult form and venturing into the world.

Blue velvet ant (female)

Velvet ants are found in warmer parts of the world particularly deserts.  The majority of species are red and black but a variety of other colors are known including blue, gold, orange, and white.  Unlike the social ants and termites, velvet ants are generally solitary, coming together only to reproduce with their strangely alien mates.

A Honeybee Drone

Even though honey bees they mimic humans in some ways (for example with their rigidly hierarchical hive organization), they are alarmingly alien in many respects.  Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the lives of honeybee drones—the male bees which play a role in reproduction but are otherwise alarmingly superfluous to the workings of a bee hive.

Drones are born from unfertilized eggs either laid by queens or by laying worker bees (which can only lay drones).  Because the drones develop from unfertilized eggs they have only one set of chromosomes (a reproductive process known as arrhenotokous parthenogenesis) and each drone produces genetically identical sperm. A fertilized queen can lay female worker bees which have two sets of chromosomes (diploid).   Worker bees are extremely closely related as sisters since they share identical genetic information from the father (as opposed to most other animals where male sex cells are not all genetically identical).

Drones do not posess stingers and can be safely handled.

Drones are different in appearance from female bees.  They are slightly larger than worker bees but smaller than the queen.  They have extremely large eyes, perhaps to help them find a queen while flying.  Additionally, drones lack stingers (which are really modified ovipositors and thus unique to female bees). Drones from different hives congregate at certain locations not far from a given hive (it is unclear how they choose or mark these locations).

Drones do not engage in the useful toil so characteristic of the workers.  Male bees do not gather nectar & pollen, take care of larvae, or build the hive.  Lacking stingers, they do not act as soldiers.  Their only purpose is to mate with a queen—though only one in thousands will fulfill this destiny.  Mating is accomplished in midair and proves fatal to the drone.  His reproductive organs break off inside the queen and the contusion proves mortal.  Drones have no place in an austere winter beehive.  As winter approaches in cold weather locations, worker bees cast all of the drones out of the hive to perish.

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