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Worker Bees Are Female, Not ‘Nonbinary’
Slavoj Žižek’s assertion that worker bees are “literally trans-sexual” and “nonbinary” has no basis in reality.
This week, the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote an article for Compact, offering a critique of certain aspects of the prevailing “woke” ideology surrounding gender. “The changes advocated and enforced by gender and woke ideology are themselves largely ‘regressive,” he said. While I found his criticisms vague and nearly incomprehensible, I still consider it a victory every time a prominent figure on the Left acknowledges and denounces the backwards nature of gender ideology.
Unfortunately, Žižek apparently felt the need to concede some ground to gender ideology, presumably to avoid complete ostracism from his political circle. In the spirit of Pride month, he predictably decided to challenge the binary concept of sex. However, while I have come to expect the routine appeals to sex changing clownfish, pregnant male seahorses, and white throated sparrows (i.e., “the bird with four sexes” (but not really)), I never could have predicted that he would have championed honeybee workers as the quintessential example of nonbinary sex.
As Žižek concluded his essay, his intention was seemingly to provide readers with profound philosophical insight. However, he merely revealed his rudimentary understanding of biology. He contended that honeybee workers are “literally trans-sexual” and utilized the singular pronoun “they” to refer to them in what he called “today’s nonbinary parlance.”
All the work is done by bees appropriately named workers: They are feminine, with their reproductive organs remaining undeveloped, so they aren’t sexualized, but literally trans-sexual. The sexual intercourse (impregnation) between a queen bee and the drones happens only once in their lifetime: After intercourse, drones die, while the queen gathers enough sperm to last for her entire life. So if the queen is a she and a drone a he, what are the workers? To use today’s nonbinary parlance, are the workers not precisely they? Bees thus form the only known society in which the large majority are “they,” while the worst fate awaits the masculine drones. [my emphasis]
Labeling honeybee workers as “trans-sexual” and “nonbinary” is not only a biological misstep on Žižek’s part, but it’s also steeped in irony considering that honeybees serve as perfect illustrations of communism—a political system closely aligned with Žižek’s own ideology. One might expect him to demonstrate a deeper knowledge of, or at least a greater interest in, a species that exemplifies a functioning form of communism in the real world!
Regardless, Žižek’s claim that honeybee workers are “literally trans-sexual” and neither a “she” nor a “he” is wildly inaccurate. As someone who studied social insects as a scientist for nearly seven years and published over a dozen peer-reviewed papers on them, including the most comprehensive review of collective personalities in eusocial insects and arachnids to date, I can say with confidence that he has no idea what he’s talking about.
Žižek’s claims completely miss the mark and and seem to stem from his misconceptions about gender ideology and the biology of haplodiploid sex determination, a feature common to all social Hymenoptera.
Žižek’s employment of the terms "feminine" and "nonbinary" in relation to honeybee reproduction either unveils his confusion about the tenets of gender ideology or an intentional effort to blur the line between sex and gender. My interpretation is that he's using “feminine” to denote something embodying female-related attributes without necessarily being female, while he employs “nonbinary” and the gender-neutral “they” pronoun to refer to an individual who is neither male nor female.
While it’s true that some proponents of gender ideology strive to blur the distinctions between sexes and their associated notions of masculinity and femininity, it’s crucial to understand that the terms “nonbinary” and “intersex” refer to entirely different concepts. “Intersex” refers to developmental conditions that result in the appearance of mixed or sexually ambiguous genitalia, whereas “nonbinary” describes (according to gender ideology) individuals who simply do not identify with the “binary” social stereotypes, roles, or expectations commonly associated with sex. Žižek seems to mistakenly equate “nonbinary” with “intersex,” a misconception that couldn’t be further from the true.
All right, but what about his claim that honeybee workers are “literally trans-sexual”? He says this following a description of worker bees as having undeveloped reproductive organs and therefore are not “sexualized.” This wording is confusing, but he must mean either that worker bees are neither male nor female, or are simply not capable of having sex. If he means the latter, then he is correct, worker bees cannot have sex. But if he means the former, he is incorrect, because even though worker bees cannot have sex, they still have a sex—female.
Why are worker bees female? Because their primary reproductive anatomy is organized around the production of large gametes, or eggs. That is the shared universal feature of being female across the living world. The inability of worker bees to mate does not negate their capacity to produce eggs. This is because honeybees, like other social Hymenoptera, have what’s called haplodiploid sex determination.
In the language of genetics, “haplo-” means single, and “diploid” means double. Humans are diploid—we get one set of genes from our mom, and one from our dad. But honeybees are a bit different.
A bee egg, like any other egg, starts off as an unfertilized single cell with one set of genes from the mother, making it haploid. If that egg then gets fertilized by a male bee’s sperm during mating, it receives an additional set of genes from the father, making it diploid because it now has two sets of genes. This is how a female bee, either a worker bee or queen, is born.
Male bees, or drones, are produced differently. If a bee’s egg doesn’t get fertilized by a male—i.e., it remains with one set of genes (haploid)—it still develops, but into a male. It’s literally a kind of virgin birth! This egg will only have the mother’s set of genes, making it haploid. These haploid bees grow up to be the males. That means a drone doesn’t have a father and cannot have sons, but he can have grandsons. This is because his mother (a diploid female) had a father, but any offspring he produces will be female (since they would have to be fertilized eggs to carry his genetic material).
The actual genetics is a little complex, but not terribly so.
In honey bees, what decides if a bee is going to be male or female is controlled by one specific area in their DNA, known as the complementary sex determiner (csd) gene. When a young bee is developing, if it has two different versions of this csd gene (we call this being heterozygous), it will become a female bee. But, if it has two of the same versions or just one version of this csd gene (which is called being homozygous or hemizygous), it will become a male bee. But if a male bee ends up with two copies of the same csd gene, that gives rise to a special case: a diploid male. These diploid males are not healthy and don’t grow into adult bees because the nurse bees (a type of worker bee) who take care of the young will eat them as soon as they hatch.
As I mentioned, worker bees (who are all females) can lay eggs without them being fertilized, and these eggs will become their sons. But there’s a unique thing about bee families that makes workers want to help their sisters more than their own offspring. The haplodiploid sex-determination system actually makes them more genetically similar to their sisters (the queen’s daughters) than their own children. This means that by helping their sisters survive and have more kids, the worker bees are also helping to spread their own genes. This is more efficient for them compared to having their own children.
The haplodiploid sex determination process plays a crucial role in the structure and behavior of honeybee colonies. It enables the extraordinary level of social organization, division of labor, and cooperation observed in these societies. This mechanism is thought to be a key factor in the evolution of eusociality, the highest level of social organization in nature where some individuals in a group (the workers) give up their own reproduction to assist others (the queens) in producing offspring.
It is important to note, however, that while haplodiploidy has likely facilitated the evolution of eusociality in some cases, it’s not a necessary condition for it. There are examples of eusocial organisms, like termites and naked mole rats, that are not haplodiploid. Likewise, many bee and wasp species aren’t social at all, but solitary. Eusociality is a complex trait likely influenced by multiple factors, including environmental conditions, life history traits, and genetic factors beyond just the system of sex determination.
As a scientist who has devoted significant time and effort to studying these complex insect societies in the literature, lab, and field, it is upsetting to witness individuals with no foundational knowledge of these organisms simplifying and warping their fascinating biology to align with fashionable political ideologies around “gender.” The underlying biology is so much richer and more compelling than you could ever imagine, especially when compared to the oversimplifications presented by these intellectual impostors.
Žižek’s argument is lazy and potentially an attempt to ingratiate himself to an ideological factions that, paradoxically, he finds repellent. And the only way to do this is by sacrificing some aspect of biology on the altar of gender ideology. Such conduct is unbefitting of an intellectual or indeed, anyone who prioritizes truth. The intentional blurring of lines between sex and gender may suit Žižek’s philosophical narrative, but it warps the truth and muddles our understanding of these deeply fascinating aspects of life.
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