May 2, 2017
This morning Poppy and I paused on our walk down 22nd Street to watch a young man trying to coerce a honeybee swarm from a tree branch into a pine half-super box in which to transport them to a new hive. This gave me something to think about as we continued our walk. The tendency to swarm is ingrained into honeybee genetic programming. Swarming is how honey bee colonies reproduce. Prompted by various signals, the queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees and sets up a new colony. Up to 60% of the workers will abandon the old hive to leave with the queen’s swarm. The remaining worker bees from the hive will raise a new queen from one of the remaining larva by altering its diet and this new queen will take over the task of laying eggs so that the hive continues.
The bees that leave with the queen and make up these swarms suddenly become amazingly docile so much so that they will allow themselves to be handled and manipulated by people. When you see those bizarre photos of people wearing a mass of honeybees that looks like a beard, those are bees that have swarmed. One wouldn’t try this trick with bees shaken lose from an active hive as they will act normally and sting. Swarming bees, I suppose because they are homeless make no attempt at defending
It’s as if bees have dual personalities, docile or aggressive that they can switch between as a group. It was a refreshing reminder to see this swarm, as it brought to my mind not just the complex working of bees but also of ants. Remember that the famous biologist E. O. Wilson started his career in myrmecology, the study of ants. His 1971 book, The Insect Societies, described the biology of the social insects like ants, bees, wasps and termites. It was his 1975 book, Sociobiology: the New Synthesis that disturbed a lot of people. He applied his theories about the social behavior of insects to vertebrates, including humans and speculated that much about the human hierarchical social order is programmed into our genetics just as it is in these social insects. His ideas met with considerable resistance, to say the least.
Something about that mass of bees clustered together made me think of the images we have seen over the last few months of migrants making their way across Europe. Do humans have some deep genetic code that when triggered tells us to pick up and move?