The Lesson from the Hive
Of all the people making a living from climate change, George Monbiot is one of the better known. Like many in the fundraising sector, however, he is hired as much for his heart as his head. And so it comes as no surprise to find him writing in the Guardian:
“When Thomas Hobbes claimed that in the state of nature, before authority arose to keep us in check, we were engaged in a war “of every man against every man”, he could not have been more wrong. We were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other.”
The article was about loneliness, particularly as it applied to the economically inactive, with a small nod to the soulless desolation of the office and, for that matter, the soulless desolation of self-employment. He had no particular solution, but seemed very sure that nature would provide the answers.
Sadly, bees aren’t a great source of humane answers. most obviously on the pedantic grounds that most bees aren’t very social at all. This might, however, be the fault of a sub-editor rather than Monbiot, a trained zoologist, so we might charitably assume he meant honey bees.
Assuming he did, it’s still a poor analogy. Honey bees may appear to live together in sociable, harmonious families, but appearances are very deceptive. Honey bees show little sympathy for the the sick, the elderly or the infirm, for example, and can be viciously sexist, especially in the autumn. They may harbour what look like democratic instincts, but those instincts are often devoted to robbery and regicide which, at least in human societies, aren’t always seen as helpful.
Despite that, many eminent people, from Aristotle onwards, have looked into beehives and claimed to find lessons for humanity. It is not often clear what these lessons are supposed to be, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to squeeze their own ideas, according to need and preference, into a hive-shaped analogy . Monarchists, naturally, focus on the queen, and see her as a ruler who, without a word, keeps the workers doing what they’re told. This stretches the truth somewhat, now we see the queen as mere egg-laying machine, whose life is swiftly taken according to how she smells. Similarly, bureaucrats, from the time-and-motion men of the last century to those who now decide how long we should take to cross a road, like to consider people as identical units of production and see the hive as a model of focussed efficiency, ignoring the fact that, on average, around 80% of the workers in a hive are performing well below their full capacity. Most prominent, of course, are armchair authors, who eagerly pounce on the beehive analogy and, with a surprising combination of ingenuity and ignorance, squeeze it into anything from economics to mindfulness.
Whatever their intentions, they all forget the important point that humans are, as far as we can tell, different. For us, free will is a necessary burden, and curiosity more than a means to a flowery end. We may have to work, but we do not do the same things for millions of years, like bees. Instead we invent, we challenge and we design and, as a result, see starvation, disease and predation as, at least in theory, avoidable. Bees, on the other hand, just play the odds.
Perhaps I’ve missed the point. Humans are, after all, social creatures, and that means there are at least some parallels between us and other social creatures, such as honey bees. The trouble with that, however, is that honey bees are not just social, but eusocial. That means, among other things, they have separate castes, and most individuals have their reproductive capabilities suppressed. It is possible to imagine such a society for humans – as Huxley did in Brave New World – but science fiction and dystopian speculation are, though entertaining, written as warnings rather than recipes.
Moreover, there are more differences than similarities between honey bees and humans. We are entirely different sorts of animal. If we really wanted to know what a eusocial human society would look like, we would ignore honey bees entirely and look at a genuine ‘mammalian bee’, the naked mole rat.
The naked mole rat is one of only two eusocial mammals (the other is the related Damaraland mole rat), but it is truly eusocial, and there are many parallels with honey bees. They live in colonies formed of a reproductive female, a few reproductive males and a worker caste that cares for the young, builds and maintains the communal home (a maze of tunnels underground), collects food (usually plant roots), and informs other workers of food sources. Also like honey bees, they don’t seem to get cancer.
There are also many differences, apart from the naked mole rats’ lack of flight and sight. The reproductive males, of which there are two or three, mate with the dominant female within their own colony, leading to very high levels of inbreeding. Colonies do not swarm, but split by closing off tunnels or by ‘dispersers’ (a type of worker) leaving the hive, becoming sexually mature, finding a mate and founding a new colony from scratch. Lifespans are much greater, with naked mole rats living for up to thirty years. And, instead of feeding the young with secretions from their heads, workers feed the young with faeces.
There are various theories why the two species of eusocial mole rats, which both live in southern Africa, became eusocial, but the likeliest explanation seems to be that it’s an adaptation to a limited range and resources. As with bees, most types of mole rat do not live in colonies, so it’s an unusual adaptation, suggesting it’s a response to unavoidable evolutionary pressures.
As I see it, the model of society that honey bees, (or, for that matter, mole rats, common wasps and termites) show us, is efficient, but not very pleasant. It’s a society that, rather than adapting to the world outside, has isolated itself from most of it. It’s a workhouse world, where the products of inbred extended families, or near-clones, exchange individuality and reproductive prospects, for a greater chance of species survival.
That may seem a good, altruistic, thing to do. But I fail to see what humans can learn from that. We are already a successful species, with great diversity, a range that spans the planet and an inventive adaptability that survives challenges that have rendered so many other species extinct. To some extent, we rely on sociality for the rearing, and education, of our young. But as well as relying on the communal work of every teacher, doctor, cook or priest, we also rely on solitary explorers, inventors, researchers and even poets, without whom we’d not adapt to challenges.
Honey bees are fascinating creatures, but much of our fascination is because they are different to us, living an almost incomprehensible way of life. We might fancy we can see similarities between us and them, but that is only a fancy, and we don’t look for such similarities in wasps. In short, we keep bees because, over millennia, humans have found them easy to exploit; and that, sadly, is the real lesson from the hive.
Robert Pickard: Energy, Honey Bees and Humans
Faulkes, CG, Bennett NC: Plasticity and constraints on social evolution in African mole-rats: ultimate and proximate factors
Philosophical Transactions B (2013) DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0347http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/368/1618/20120347#F1