I want to note that the way the sex binary looks like it’s present throughout the animal world is that white scientists have a terrible habit of labeling everything “male” or “female” even when it makes no sense.

Like, by any reasonable metric, bees have three sexes: drone, queen, and worker. Workers are only labelled female because someone couldn’t abide the idea of something not being either one or the other.

And before someone calls “genetics” there are many species where both sexes have the exact same genetics, and even many where individuals can change reproductive capacity at will, and scientists suddenly have no problem calling the ones who grow eggs “female” even though they were “male” two weeks ago.

Some species of mammals reproduce asexually. They have only one sex. It is still called “female” because it makes babies even though one might reasonably ask why even make the distinction when every single individual makes babies just the same.

Okay. But like.  That is not how bees work.  That is incredibly not how bees work.  I am not even going to address any other part of this post because I am so annoyed by this misrepresentation of how bees work. (srsly though, name ONE mammal that reproduces asexually.  I think you are thinking of reptiles and amphibians.  And I think you mean parthenogenetically.)

Okay.  So.  I was typing up a whole lecture on the evolution of eusociality and division of labor and then decided that was too complicated so let’s keep it simple and focused on one example.

Honeybees.  We’ve got drones/males.  They have testes and sperm and they essentially blow up when they mate. Queens/gynes/reproductive-females are female bees that are fed special food by workers to enhance the development of their ovaries.  They lay eggs.  They also put out pheromones to inhibit reproduction by other bees. 

Worker bees are females that did not get the queen food to turn on the hormonal paths to get the plus-plus-ovaries.  Instead of betting on passing their genes along to daughters, they are betting on rearing sister-queens, who they are actually MORE related to than they would be to their own offspring due to the way bee genetics work (haplodiploidy). AND their momma is pumping out pheromones to inhibit major development of ovaries, eggs, etc.  In some species of social insects this is straight up reproductive sabotage–if queenie dies workers can literally grow into queens because pheromones go away.  Honeybees need the special diet as babies.

But.  Here’s the thing.  They also cheat.  Yep.  They’ve got underdeveloped ovaries.  And some worker bees sneak off to the edge of the nest and slack off on their share of the work and eat lots of food and lay a couple of their own eggs.  The eggs are unfertilized, so the babies will be males, but hey that’s still a future reproductive with sneaky-worker-momma’s genes!  (Other workers will kill these babies if they figure out what’s going on but. Eh.  Sometimes it works.)  Look up honeybees and “rebel workers”, it is a trip.

So anyway, the thing I am saying is that scientists are not making arbitrary calls on this shit, there is a genetic, physiological, and evolutionary background to where these terms come from.  And also, we don’t determine a bee’s sex by whether or not it is on birth control because that would be stupid.

Also, oh my god, biology is way too cool to need to spread misinformation to make a point.

Now, if you want a real example of a genetic system that actually functions as three sexes check out the recent work done on symmetrical social hybridogenesis in a couple species of harvester ants.  Basically, we have two variants of ants and a queen needs needs to mate with the same variant as herself to produce queens and the opposite variant to produce workers.  So a queen needs to have mated with both if she wants to have a healthy colony and be able to pass on her genes to future queens.  And all types of colonies need to be present in a population to keep it stable.  Functionally, it becomes more like four operational sexes.  IT IS VERY NEAT.

OR if you want an example of a genetic system where the sexes have literally become different species, look up clonal reproduction in little fire ants (Wasmannia auropunctata) because it is weird shit.  The females have evolved to make reproductive clone babies.  The males have evolved to wipe the female dna from eggs and make reproductive clone babies.  Basically, the male and female reproductive lines are operating in an entirely different evolutionary pool than the sterile workers, who are still made by mixing genes from both sexes.

tl;dr, there is way cooler shit going on in the biology of sex than you seem to be aware of.


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