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May 1, Labor Day: Celebrating the Division of Labor in Nature

May 1, Labor Day: Celebrating the Division of Labor in Nature

Labor Day, also known as International Workers’ Day or May Day, is a global holiday that is celebrated on May 1st each year. It recognizes the contributions of workers to our society and honors their effort all around the world. It originated as a way to recognize the labor movement and the hardship of workers for equal payment, better working conditions, and rights [1]. Today, Labor Day is celebrated in many countries around the world, and it has become a symbol of the dignity of work and the acknowledgement of labor.

But why do we celebrate Labor Day? At its core, labor is the effort that we put in supply of goods and services in a system. It can have many different forms, from physical work like manufacturing to intellectual work like research or teaching [2] . Labor helps us to sustain our society, and to improve our lives in that society with different manners.

One of the key aspects of labor is the division of labor. Under division of labor, we understand the distribution of different tasks and roles to different individuals or groups. Importance of division of labor for a society is mentioned in ancient statements like Plato’s Republic and contributions of modern philosophers including Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx [3]. This division of labor is essential for the efficient and effective functioning of societies, as it allows individuals to specialize in the tasks that they are best suited for, and to collaborate with others who have complementary skills and abilities [4].

The division of labor is not only for human race. It is also a fundamental phenomenon of the natural world, where different organisms and cells have specialized roles and functions. One example for the labor division can be seen in bee communities, where different castes of bees have distinct roles and responsibilities [5].

In a honeybee hive, there are three main castes of bees: the queen, the workers, and the drones. It is queen’s responsibility to lay eggs and maintain the reproductive health of the colony. The majority of the hive’s duties, including taking care of the brood, finding food, and maintaining the hive’s physical structure, are carried out by the workers. The drones are responsible for mating with queens from other colonies. [5]

The division of labor in bee communities is regulated by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Honey bee queens and workers develop from the same diploid eggs; however, they are distinct in phenotype. This differentiation is determined by different quantity and quality of food that female larvae received ­[6]. Diet of queen larvae is mainly based on royal jelly, which contains good amount of nutrients that promote the development of the reproductive organs. On the other hand, worker larvae are fed a mixture of pollen and honey, which does not contain necessary elements to promote the development of reproductive organs [6].

Further analysis conducted at single cell level showed us that following high nutrient royal jelly diet is not sufficient for caste differentiation where honeybees are genetically knocked-out. Single cell transcriptomic analysis of honeybees revealed the genetic difference between queen and worker female bees. According to Zhang et al., a specific cell type in the brains of queens, ensheathing glial cells, highly express vitellogenin (vg). Expression of vg in glial cells serve as a molecular signature for the queen caste. They report that the knockdown of vg at early larva stage suppressed the development of queen although they followed a high-nutrition diet [7].

The division of labor in bee communities is a fascinating example of how natural systems can achieve complex and efficient organization through the allocation of different tasks and roles. It also shows us the importance of being in cooperation and collaboration within our society in order to achieve common goals.

The division of labor in natural systems can inspire us to work together for a better future. As we celebrate Labor Day on May 1, let us remember how important labor and the division of labor in creating and sustaining our societies.


5. Johnson BR. Division of labor in honeybees: form, function, and proximate mechanisms. Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 2010 Jan;64(3):305-316. doi: 10.1007/s00265-009-0874-7. Epub 2009 Nov 10. PMID: 20119486; PMCID: PMC2810364.
6. De Souza DA, Kaftanoglu O, De Jong D, Page RE Jr, Amdam GV, Wang Y. Differences in the morphology, physiology and gene expression of honey bee queens and workers reared in vitro versus in situ. Biol Open. 2018 Nov 22;7(11):bio036616. doi: 10.1242/bio.036616. PMID: 30341101; PMCID: PMC6262861.
7. Zhang W, Wang L, Zhao Y, Wang Y, Chen C, Hu Y, Zhu Y, Sun H, Cheng Y, Sun Q, Zhang J, Chen D. Single-cell transcriptomic analysis of honeybee brains identifies vitellogenin as caste differentiation-related factor. iScience. 2022 Jun 18;25(7):104643. doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2022.104643. PMID: 35800778; PMCID: PMC9254125.