Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ed's ants, Beth's bees


I've finally got around to reading E. O. Wilson's The Social Conquest of the Earth. Not much that is new, but a nice tying together of themes he has developed from Sociobiology to Consilience and beyond. I have nothing but admiration for the man; he is 83 years old and still prodigiously productive.

He is, of course, perhaps the world's leading authority on the social insects, especially ants. He is not afraid to assert similarities between eusocial insects and human societies, and looks for the origin of both in the dynamic of natural selection.

As it happens, as I read Wilson, I am getting daily reports on my friend Beth's new bee hive, her first. The hive is not just a buzzing confusion. It is a highly organized society, in which every individual has an specialized role to play. My curiosity piqued, I just spent a few hours browsing Mark Winston's The Biology of the Honey Bee, and I'm sitting here shaking my head and thinking: "Ain't nature wonderful," and "Ain't science wonderful."

But let me quote now, more or less at random, from a less scientific source, Susan Brind Morrow's more literary Wolves & Honey:
When we open the hive we rarely see the queen. She lives where the young are hatched and reared, in the middle of the lower combs, surrounded by pollen. The queen wanders through her territory all day long, slowly, regally, surrounded by her changing court of worker bees, which protect and wash her, brushing back her hair, bringing her food, carrying away her excrement. They touch her all the while with their antennae.

As they lick and touch the queen the workers pick up substances secreted by her body. The workers constantly touch one another, and in doing so spread her pheromones throughout the hive, signally that the queen is alive and well.

The workers create a thin layer of larger cells on the edge of the comb for unfertilized eggs, which he queen lays at will. The unfertilized eggs develop into male bees, drones larger than the worker bees, even burly. The drones do no work. They wander through the hive as they wish, taking pollen and honey, and making messes wherever they go.
And so on, page after page of astonishing social behaviors. Courtship. Sex. The rearing of young. Communication. Food preparation and storage. Grooming. Housekeeping. Defense.

E. O. Wilson with his overarching theories of social evolution (of which more tomorrow), and Beth with her bees. The halls of Harvard, and the meadows of Plainville. They go nicely together. Hard to tell who has the greater enthusiasm.