Trump, Honeybees, Climate Change
I’ve been trying to follow honeybees around my neighborhood, like some weird interspecies stalker. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. I baited a small box with honey and sugar water, and I sit next to it impatiently, waiting for a bee to come. When she does, I slam the box closed and keep her for 10 minutes while she fills up on the treats I’ve offered. When I open the door, she flies out, zooms around for a minute to orient herself, and then, belly full, heads directly for home to share the bounty. I watch and try get a compass bearing to learn where she lives. I lose sight of her quickly, but I suspect she’s heading towards a neighbor’s house. This isn’t surprising, because my neighbor is a beekeeper.
It’s fun to do this catch-and-release bee game, at least for me. I hope the bees are enjoying it too. I’m fine that they fly toward a tended hive. But what would be really exciting is to find a feral hive in the woods. This would contribute to the pool of hope in the world, or at least my world. And what’s wrong with a little extra hope? Because while this is going on in the bee world, the humans are toying with the idea of making Donald Trump the most powerful man on the planet.
The instructions for beelining, as my new hobby is called, say that after releasing a bee, wait for the same insect to return. By timing how long it takes, you can get an indication of how far away the hive is.
A few problems that I’m encountering:
- I can barely recognize my own children out of context, so to distinguish one bee from another is a bit of a reach. The experts tag bees, but I’m not sure I could do that without harming her, and this isn’t real science; it’s not worth killing anyone over.
- I can’t see very well.
- I have no idea how the time before her return equates to distance to her hive.
But, I persist, the way one does with obsessions. I’ve been obsessed for a while, but my interest ramped up when I learned, upon reading an excellent book by Thomas Seeley, Honeybee Democracy, that honeybees make democratic decisions. A group of bees will consider options, debate amongst themselves, and make the best choice for all concerned.
They do this most notably when swarming. A bit of background in bee biology: the way a colony expands its genetic influence in the world, which is the goal of all species, is to swarm. When bees are well fed, presumably happy, and getting crowded, half of the hive takes off with the queen, and hangs out in a giant cluster. From this mass of bees, the oldest and most experienced females leave to scope out options for a new home. They return to the swarm to report on their findings.
Honeybees can’t survive alone. Labor is precisely divided, each bee contributing their bit for the good of the whole. The individual has no place in a beehive. You never hear about a bee going off alone to write poetry or to find themselves. As far as we know, bees aren’t throwing up their wings, looking skyward and moaning, “what’s the point?” As someone who spends a fair amount of energy trying to keep that impulse at bay, I’m drawn to the bees.
I wonder if they have tiny personalities, special friends, bees that they feel particularly close to, and others that give them the creep vibe. If so, it isn’t obvious. They all work to support the colony so that the species, and in particular, their mother’s genes, will persist into the future. I wonder if humans look that way from outside our species. So industrious! Everyone working so hard on their computers all day!
The queen is the only bee who can lay fertilized eggs, but she relies on workers to feed and raise the babies, and drones, who spend their miserable life not having sex, or if they do, die in mid-air, as their barbed member gets ripped from their body.
The humans have also become highly specialized. Some gather food, others do heart surgery. Some build houses, some bear children. Some design complicated video games, others tie plastic flagging along jurisdictional boundary of wetlands. Some have their finger on the nuclear bomb that could kill millions, most don’t.
At the swarm, scout bees venture out to look for a new home, and return to the group to direct others to their site, communicating through dances. The bees have identified specific criteria that makes a good home: cavity size, orientation of the opening, etc. that will increase their odds of survival. They ultimately make a group decision to move to the site that most closely matches their criteria.
The humans, using the primary system, are coming up with Donald Trump as one of the most qualified to lead the country. It’s unclear what criteria we’re using.
I’m glad we have the capacity to search for meaning, write poetry, make music, invent things, and think independently. I’m grateful that our needs are more complex than cavity size and orientation of the front door.
But one thing the bees do that makes them successful decision-makers is listen to other ideas. After a bee finds a potential nest site, she returns to the hive, announces it, and then rests. She doesn’t campaign. She doesn’t get staunch about promoting her site; she doesn’t try to convince everyone that it’s the best site ever. In fact, compared to our elections, it looks pretty half-hearted. Like, “look everyone, I have an idea. Check it out if you feel like it. I’ll be napping.” Eventually, though, she rouses and, rather than doggedly sticking to her site, she explores sites announced by other bees. If their potential new home is superior to hers, she promotes it by dancing. In this way, each bee responds to new information to improve the decision until a critical mass agrees, and they relocate to their new hive.
The humans don’t seem to have the capacity to be truly open to new ideas and information. We get locked in. We’re loyal, ridiculously so, to things we discovered first, to our candidate, or our belief system, even when it’s proven wrong.
I think that trait comes along with the painful knowledge of our mortality. The depressing fact that we’re all going to die is mitigated by a ridiculous, beautiful capacity for hope and faith. We don’t like the idea of getting old, losing one thing after the next, and then dying, so we believe in things to ward off despair. Whether it’s an afterlife, a football team, or oregano oil. Or, in this terrible instance of belief gone awry, it’s believing the preposterous statements of angry rich white guy. Building walls will keep us safe from terrorists! (Because of course, all of the terrorists will be on the OTHER side of that wall.) The climate isn’t changing, it’s just weather! I think that this capacity, to deny the terrible circumstance we’re in, is a result of our awareness of death. It’s hard to grapple with the fact that every one we love will die, possibly before us. It’s even harder to live with the idea that we’re responsible for creating conditions leading to the mass extinction that’s in progress. Who wants to believe that? Some find it reassuring to believe in powerful men who simplify our problems, and suggest the world can be fixed by activating our dark capacity to hate.
What would reassure me is discovering that a swarm of bees decided to live in a tree near my house and made it through the winter, oblivious to their mortality, just doing what they do, listening and working together to make good decisions. I wish we had the capacity for that AND poetry.