Part 1, Take 2: Bees & Bumble

This is the second of three installments of the Introduction of the book-to-be: Sticky, Sexy, Sad: My Five Months Inside the Bumble Hive. I love history and learning about not only the very recent history of Bumble, but also the long and complex story of bees was so interesting! At first I thought that the study of ‘real’ bees alongside my own journey into the hive would be a unique/cute technique. I still think that- ha ha- but as I learned more about the gendered dynamics of bee hives in the wild I saw more and more parallels between the worker bees and my own experiences on the app. Like them, I felt worked to the bone often as I tried to pursue men and make sense of the strangeness and often mean behaviours I encountered. WHAT is any of this for? Why put the effort into this when they’re just going to disappear? WHY do they feign interest and then vanish—I DON’T GET IT. The longer I stayed in the hive the more I began to understand about not only men’s behaviours, but the more complex and often hidden functions of dating apps. Their ubiquity and apparent ‘ease’ of use masks the complex and troubling ways they are deployed…to be continued.3 types of bees


Hive Dynamics

One of the reasons the app is called Bumble is because founder Whitney Wolfe Herd was inspired by the gendered dynamics of honeybee life. As she said in a 2015 Esquire interview, “bee society where there’s a queen bee, the woman is in charge, and it’s a really respectful community. It’s all about the queen bee and everyone working together. It was very serendipitous” (Zarinsky, 2015). Bee terminology is often employed in media stories about the app and words like “pollination” are used to describe the first move women must make to ‘grow’ or transform an app-generated match into an actual conversation (Shepard 2016). However, there is infinitely more going on inside the Bumble hive than supped up women buzzing around, proactively taking care of their dating business. Some additional insights into the structure and function of an actual beehive help set the stage for the story to come. 

Bee life is fascinating, especially the language used to describe bee types and how they live. It is steeped in and reflects the cultural organization of life during the 19th century, a time when many countries were forging colonial empires on the backs, minerals, and environmental riches of other nations around the world. The three kinds of honeybees, for instance, are called castes- a term the British and others ascribed to the hereditary occupations Indian people are born into that structure much of life in the sub-continent. A hive is often called a colony, which refers to a country that is ruled and occupied by another, often distant, power. Is this how bee life works or a projection by those bespectacled, pleated-trouser wearing men who were driven by personal curiousity and state-sponsored expeditions to name, tame, and master the natural world? I wonder. At any rate, much like human society the dynamics of a beehive are dictated primarily by sex, caste or status, and age. 

There are three castes in a beehive, one male (drone) and two female (worker, queen) and they each have important roles in the complex running of the honeycomb structures they call home. Drones do very little when it comes to hive upkeep or safety and they do not have a stinger, rendering them useless when it comes to the defense of their housemates or themselves. They exist primarily for reproduction and die after mating with the fertile queen or when expelled from the hive during winter. They take twenty-four days to develop, the longest of the bees, and number as many as five hundred per hive. Drones have much larger eyes than of those of the other bees, which are used to find the queens during their in-flight mating practices.

Queens develop in just sixteen days and differ in physiology, morphology, and behaviour from their worker bee sisters and the drones. They are larger than the other two castes, have functional ovaries, and a spermatheca- a bodily receptacle to store and maintain sperm after mating. Honeybee queens practice polyandry and mate with multiple males, laying up to two thousand eggs per day. Their stingers are not barbed, which means they do not die after stinging and they can live up to three or four years. They also produce pheromones that regulate the behaviour of workers and help to track their location during a swarming, the process through which a new hive is created.

Queens are essential to bee life and the hive itself, however, equal shine must be shared with the girls in the house who really make things happen- the workers. These females are produced from eggs the queen has fertilized (See Baer et al. 2016 for a mind-blowing account of how the queens use sperm). They take around twenty-one days to develop and a colony may have up to sixty thousand workers, who exhibit a wider range of behaviours than queens or drones. Their duties change as they progress through their life cycle, which is five or six weeks during active seasons or longer if they overwinter (four to six months). Young workers are sometimes called “nurse bees” and they clean the hive and feed the larvae, first on royal jelly and then pollen and honey. When their royal jelly-producing glands atrophy they switch to building honeycomb cells in which the larva develop. They progress to tasks like receiving nectar and pollen from foragers and guarding the hive as they become older. Some workers perform specialized “undertaking” duties to remove the corpses of their nestmates from the hive. Later still, a worker takes her first orientation flights, leaves the hive and often spends the remainder of her life as a forager.

Worker bees cooperate to find food and use a pattern of “dancing” to communicate with one another to relay information about resource locations. Workers also come together to make a new queen, which happens when the old one is weakening or has died. They select a few female larvae and feed them loads of royal jelly to trigger the development of queen morphology and the ovaries needed to lay eggs. Worker bee stingers are barbed and cannot be pulled out after they have been used. This means they leave behind not only the stinger, but also part of their abdomen, digestive tract, muscles, and nerves when they sting. They are the only bees to die after stinging and are often described as being so singularly focused on their various life tasks that they work themselves to death.

This incredible saga has been taking place for over forty million years, a staggering fact that attests to the enduring power of work and gendered inequity in the business of life. This tale is not replicated in its entirety inside the Bumble hive, but parallels do exist. Like the tireless worker bees, female Bumble users undertake far more duties than those of male users, particularly at the outset. This is because women must perform the ‘first move’ each time they wish to pursue a match, which is framed as empowering as opposed to a labour-intensive set of behaviours (which is how it feels in real life). With each first move completed, the only thing left for women to do is wait to see if their desired men respond. Oddly, while they wait out the twenty-four-hours men can take to respond, women cannot access the profile or make any contact with the prospective matches. More about this liminal netherworld in the chapters to follow, but it is worth noting how powerless women are after the initial ask.

As with the numerical distribution of drones relative to worker bees, there are fewer men on Bumble and during the initial phase of courtship on the app they undertake less work than women. Like the drones, whose sperm is essential for the continuation of hive life, the decisions made by male Bumble users to respond (or not) to a woman’s initial ask determines the dating fate of both parties. If they respond something might transpire, but if they do not they disappear[1] as a dating prospect. Some male Bumble users express frustration with waiting to be approached and even critique the quality of women’s ‘asks’ as being lame or predictable. But most guys do not mind being asked and are swarmed with messages, such that they cannot reply to them all or choose not to because of the cornucopia of options at their honeycomb doors. Like a hive in the wild, Bumble is populated with processual layers and divergent social players that function in relation to each other and unfold in complex ways over time. And, who or what is the queen? This is a question I asked myself repeatedly during my five months inside the hive and leave to you to ponder while you flip through these pages.


Bumble’s story

At just twenty-nine years of age, Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd is one of America’s top female entrepreneurs, currently worth over 250 million dollars. Born to a property developer and full-time mom in Utah, Whitney went to the Southern Methodist University and majored in International Studies. After college she volunteered abroad and helped start a not-for-profit organization to support victims of the Deepwater Horizon industrial disaster of 2010 through the sale of cotton tote bags. Whitney then joined Tinder in 2012 as VP of Marketing, reportedly providing the name for the app and helping grow its user base exponentially. Professional tensions and a sexual discrimination lawsuit hastened her departure from Tinder in early 2014. In September of that same year the court case was settled for over 1 million dollars and an undisclosed percentage of company stock. Three months later and with some of her former Tinder colleagues in tow, Bumble was launched. Wolfe Herd is the CEO and the face of Bumble, and she owns 20% of the company. The dominant shareholder (79%) is Russian co-founder Andrey Andreev who started international dating app giant Badoo in 2006.

After coming up empty using a Russian word generator to create a name for the new app a board member suggested Bumble, which initially did not strike a chord with Wolfe Herd (Zarinsky 2015). But then, as discussed above, she thought about how inspirational the ‘queen bee’ idea is and they chose it for the company name. Along with the dating platform, Bumble includes Business and Friendship apps as well as the beautifully rendered, lifestyle media site The BeeHive. Often referred to as not just a dating app but a networking platform, the expanding Bumble hive created by Wolfe Herd is becoming a dominant force in contemporary social media and mainstream girlhood/woman cultures. Importantly, the company’s corporate structure reflects Bumble’s commitment to supporting women’s lives and promoting their success, and 60/70 or 85% of employees are women.

In 2017 Bumble was worth an estimated one billion dollars and it has over thirty million registered users, 60% of whom are professional, primarily White women and/or millennials under the age of thirty-five Over a billion messages have been sent, eight hundred and fifty million matches have been made, and approximately five thousand weddings and engagements have been linked to Bumble. The company has also created pop up locations in several major North American cities, including New York City and Toronto, and a social network arm of Bumble called Bumble Hive hosts multi-day events and workshops for users and members of the public. Typically geared towards women, talks about motherhood, friendship, female corporate culture, weddings, and fashion dominate these events.

…..More about my pathetic stats, why I should write the book, and what the book is NOT in the next blog :). 

[1] Bumble uses terms like “forever” to describe the disappearance of matches, which includes those generated by the app as an option or those who do not respond after an initial ask has been made. However, in real life it’ s not quite so dramatic because matches can and often do reappear later. More about that in Chapter 1.

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