In my last Pokémon related post, I discussed some of the cool things the Pokémon creators did with the bug-types. Though there were flaws, they really did do a good job of including some real ecology and biology, and it made for a great educational tool for me to discuss butterfly and moth life cycles.
Now I want to discuss one of my favorite organisms on the planet, and Pokémon’s attempt to do it justice.
A strange Pokémon nonetheless, it starts out as three bee-like organisms inside their honeycomb, flying around as a unit. The interesting thing about this Pokémon is that it has an incredibly skewed gender ratio: 87.5 percent of Combees are male while 12.5% are female. But the reason why most people catch a ton of these Pokémon are to get that elusive female Combee, because only female Combees can evolve into the incredibly powerful Vespiquen (which I think was supposed to be Vespiqueen, but they ran out of letters?)
Vespiquen is a strange Pokémon in that it is not only supposed to signify the queen bee of the hive, but the Pokémon is the hive itself. This sort of makes sense when you think about Combee being the three bees and the combs they live in; so it is natural to assume when they evolve they would also evolve those three little combs into a hive. The truly strange thing about Vespiquen is that she is not only the queen and the hive, but Combees actually live inside her. So to have a Vespiquen is to have thousands of Combee as well.
As an aside, I’ve been thinking about how this evolution could work. If you dissociate the Combee into three little bees, then each bee has a probability of being a female Combee with the potential of becoming a Vespiquen. So in reality, your 12.5% chance of catching a female Combee is aided by the fact that you get to technically catch three little bees at a time. So the real female Combee percentage in the population is more like 4.16%. But if only one of the three little bees in the Combee are required to evolve into a Vespiquen, then it is natural to ask what happens to the other two bees? It is safe to assume I guess that they just join the hive inside their friend Vespiquen.
This is all incorrect of course because one Combee is the three little bees all together. Only the bottom bee has an abdomen and the top two bees have 1 wing each coming out of the comb. The bottom bee is supposed to be the thinker, and is the only bee that has a designation signifying if it is female (a red jewel.) But it was fun to do a little math.
So the name Combee is clear: they just stuck together the words comb and bee to get the Pokemon’s name. By using bee, they naturally want you to assume this is supposed to be some kind of honeybee Pokemon, so most likely based on the Apis mellifera species. Additionally, the Combee’s ability in the game is called Honey Gather, which makes it possible for the Pokemon to sometimes collect honey at the end of a battle, a seriously strange ability. And using the word comb makes sense because this Pokemon includes the hexagonal homes bees live in.
Vespiquen on the other hand comes from the Latin vespi, meaning wasp, and queen. So this would imply that this is not a bee evolutionary line but rather a wasp evolutionary line. This could not be the the case for many reasons, but mostly because in Japanese this Pokemon is called beequeen. In other words, they were clearly going for the queen bee but that got lost in translation (though in English Vespiquen does sound much cooler.)
Compared to Honeybees.
The writers attempt to bring some real honeybee biology to the game of Pokémon was a solid try, but unfortunately lacked nuances that I understand they could not include. But the resulting Combee is actually much more incorrect than if they had ignored biology all together and just stuck to something simple, like Beedrill, which Combee is supposed to be a distant relative of…
Honeybees are actually not gender skewed towards males. In a typical hive there is one queen bee, several thousand worker bees, and a dozen or so drones.
The Queens and Workers.
Queen bees are fertile females that are raised on a specific diet of a special honey made by workers called royal jelly. Inside royal jelly is a special protein called Royalactin that induces special epigenetics changes (or changes in gene expression not the genes themselves). Hives usually only have one queen, and the queen’s job is to lay all the eggs for the hive. She lives the longest of all the bees (3-4 years) and is physically the largest in size, a result of the different diet.
The worker bees are sterile females. They are actually genetically no different than the queen other than the fact that they were not fed royal jelly as a larvae, which led them to a life of sterility. (Actually, as larvae, they are fed royal jelly, but only for a short time early on, and then get switched to a regular honey diet.) The workers are the ones that do all the work in the hive: they forage for nectar, they make honey and royal jelly, they protect the hive, they build the hive, and they care for the young.
When a queen dies in the hive, the hive is instantly put into a mode of panic. As eggs, the future queen and future workers are the same, so surviving workers will instantly sequester the most recently larvae to emerge so that it can be specially taken care of. All larvae are fed royal jelly, but this special larvae will basically be put into a bath of royal jelly for the rest of her development.
The final type of bee is the drone. Drones are the result of unfertilized eggs laid by the queen, a really crazy idea considering most animals lay many many eggs that don’t get fertilized. Could you imagine if every egg from a woman’s menstrual cycle led to a baby? That would be crazy! But this means that drones are haploid: they only have one copy of each of their chromosomes. This is because eggs are start out haploid waiting for a sperm to fertilize it and make it diploid. Thus, queens and workers are diploid, or have two copies of each chromosome.
It is important to note that most metazoan organisms, including humans, are diploid, which is advantageous because if one copy of a gene on one chromosome is bad, they can get a good copy from the other chromosome. This is the basis for all the genetic inheritance stuff we learn in school because we get one set of chromosomes from our mother and the other from our father, so if dad has a recessive disorder, we will definitely get that bad gene from him, but as long as mom doesn’t have the disorder, thus having a dominant gene, we have a chance of being fine. This is also what gives us the high genetic variability that keeps us evolutionarily poised for any obstacle.
Drones are the pseudomales of the species. They mate with the queen, and they produce sperm. But because the drones are haploid, every single haploid sperm they produce are exactly the same genetically, unlike humans where our sperm are all different because we are diploid so the sperm we make only have half of our genetic information, so variation is rampant.
The duty of the drone is to mate with the queen. Typically, a hive will have a few dozen drones, and the queen will mate with 10 or so of them. She only needs to mate with them once because she, like many insects, has a special organ called a spermatheca that stores sperm in her body.
Once the drone mates with queen, he dies. Actually, the force required for him to ejaculate is so strong, it kills him. Many drones don’t even get to mate with the queen, and they are generally left to die in the winter, because they are not allowed to stay in the hive, and they lack the ability to forage on their own. So they either get to mate and die violently, or starve.
Unfortunately though, because drones are born haploid, they encounter even more hardships. If they do inherit some bad gene, they either don’t live, or they aren’t able to mate. The advantage here though is that the hive can suddenly very rapidly select against genes they may not want. Actually honeybee genetics are incredibly complicated, and I get confused by it. I can’t figure out how much of an advantage they really have…
Compared to Combee
In real life then, the hive is actually 99.99% female, with 99.99% of them being sterile females. And the 0.01% that is kind of male isn’t actually even male! But in Pokémon, 87.5% of Combees are male and 12.5% are female, with only the female being able to evolve into a queen. This was their attempt to show that only a very small number of bees can turn into a queen. By making the gender ratios so different, they do accomplish this, but they get the biology wrong. But it would have been hard for the creators of the game to really explain the epigenetics and dietary needs that would be required to make the genetically female Combee larvae differentiate into either a sterile female worker or a fertile queen. What the writers did instead was treat the workers like the males, and thus make the potential queen the rare female, and thus ignore the drones all together (which is what happens in real life sadly for the drones).
But if they wanted to make it truly like biology, they actually could have made it work, especially with how complicated the world of Pokémon is. Instead of using gender ratios, which are incorrect biologically because most bees are female, they could have instead made Combee evolve as a result some other evolutionary mechanic the games use for many of the other Pokémon. For example they could have had it evolve when traded while holding the item “Royal Jelly” that you have to collect from other Combee. Or they could have Combee evolve only after it has high friendship with the trainer, like you do with Togepi, Budew, and countless others. But if they really wanted the biology to match the Pokémon, then 100% of the Combee would be female, and to get a Vespiquen you would need to do something special.