A recording and transcription, with links, of a talk about information sharing (so please share!), given to Richmond Association for The National Trust on 18th Jan 2014.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do what bees do, which is share information. I have no agenda, I’m offering no views or opinions. I'm just disseminating accurate, relevant, free information, just like the bees, with nothing to agree or disagree with, and hopefully having a conversation afterwards, not a debate, because that's what this talk is about – sharing interesting information and ideas, not being controversial.
I have been keeping bees for 25 years, not for the honey, but because bees keep me sane and connected with reality. Looking at my bees at Shepperton, hearing the roar of traffic on the M3 half a mile away, being drawn into the Big Wen to do things that don't need doing, like I did for 30 years, shows up the sanity of the bees, whose every activity has a purpose, and our insanity, where we get worked up about so many things that don't matter, and do so many things we don't have to do, and get stuffocation from having so many things we don’t need.
Although they are social animals and we are herding animals, in essence honeybees are a microcosm of human society, with essentially the same goals in life – to have water, varied food , shelter and each other. Bees show what's important in life.
Honeybees evolved at the same time as flowers in a symbiotic relationship where nectar is traded by the flower for the bees' pollination services to other plants. Life is all about trading, for bees and us.
I want to pass on what I have learned about them, and from them, because they are the most amazing, complex creatures. Each bee acts as an individual, yet depends on and looks out for each other. It's difficult to see them this way when we look at them en masse like this,
but they are. They only have 860,000 brain cells , in a brain the size of a sesame seed, (and proportionately the same as us and dolphins), but what they can do with it is spectacular, and what about the collective intelligence of 50,000 bees! Humans have 86bn brain cells, in the most complex brains on the planet. Honeybee and human brains have this plasticity which computers, no matter how complex, cannot have. Computers can’t change their circuitry. Which is why making robots to keep old people company is such a nonsense.
We herding animals have surrendered our individuality somewhat, in favour of the group experience, or groupthink, and have lost brain mass in the process -10% in men, 14% in women, and our domestic animals even more, because like us they no longer need the resourcefulness to survive in the wild. We specialise, so we're incompetent at anything else, and depend on the skills of others. That’s why we gravitate towards cities, because it is such a valuable resource to have, we even risk death from disease and overcrowding. (Bees swarm when they get overcrowded.)
I like that bees are rather anarchic and lawless, because they are social animals, which is a biological definition, meaning they are leaderless; they regulate themselves and don't need laws from above. Their queen, as we call her, is the mum, not a ruler.
In honeybees, we can see a microcosm of the whole real world, that they're intimately connected with, and we're increasingly disconnected from.
They are balanced with the real world, unlike us, and, unlike us, able to adapt to the changes in it – to the position of the sun, changes in climate, to the availability of forage, to gravity:
Whereas we defy gravity.
We sit in artificially lit, air-conditioned offices, we're unaware of climate changes unless they impact on our travel plans or flood our houses.
We live in a largely pretend world. There’s pretend hair colour, and skin lightening creams. We're fixated on money, which isn't real – just a load of electronic transactions.
Children don't see stars. They suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder.
We've become disconnected from our food as it's got more industrialised. We don't know where it comes from. It's become monotonous, based on wheat, rice and maize, and salt, fat and sugar - food like pizza and burgers for instance. Bees by contrast have a very varied diet, and this is the key to their health. (unless they're in thousands of beehives pollinating a hundred mile long almond orchard in California that is)
We are more prone to disease as we inhabit schools, hospitals and heated offices. Bees in their crowded heated environment protect themselves with propolis, a resin they collect from leaves and twigs which has antibiotic, anti fungal, antiseptic, anti bacterial properties
• Bees are adaptable to change, we aren't. We crave predictability when nothing is predictable. There is a lot of change going on which we're no longer resourceful enough to adapt to like the bees, because we rely on the specialist skills of others like builders, electricians, computer wizards, whereas each bee can do all her tasks at various stages in her life. Middle aged bees (aged 3-4 weeks!) will be quickly recruited by a dance to stop foraging and start processing, and vice versa, if the need arises. If you put a piece of paper in the top of a hive, the bees will change their roles to move it, and 10 minutes later it will come out of the entrance at the bottom. They are able to adapt by communicating with each other.
• Bees are Fearless whereas we are fearful. Fearful of officialdom in my case, fearful of the dark, and nature – basically the unknown. The more disconnected we are from nature, the more fearful we become of it because it is unknown, and the more guided we are by beliefs and opinions, which are part of a shared experience, so they are understandably reassuring, but beliefs are by definition nothing to do with reality.
Behind this disconnection there is an underlying belief in our superiority. We’re primates – meaning above all others. Homo sapiens: wise men.
From this lofty position, we look down on insects – and kill them! We talk about the humble bee. Bees aren't humble. There's also a sense of ownership and stewardship - 'save our planet', 'save our bees' – and also a belief that we are in control of nature. Think Genesis:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,
And subdue it: and have dominion
Over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air,
And over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. Genesis 1:28
And what about Mao Zedong - 'Man must conquer nature'. And Confucius before him. Look at the results of that!
We think we're invincible. Conservationists like to 'give nature a helping hand', and do 'rewilding'. Beekeepers believe that bees need our help and wouldn't survive without us.
Therein is a clue as to why we have problems. They stem from our disconnection from nature, which stems from our feeling of superiority to it, and our feeling of entitlement - the right to happiness, to holidays, to pets, to mountains, which are there for us to ski on, and the right to the earth's resources, which we keep on consuming without giving anything back.
Did you know that 98% of land vertebrates on the planet are now people, their pets and livestock? 10,000 years ago it was less than one tenth of 1%. That’s amazing isn’t it?
It sounds apocalyptic to say this, but there must be consequences from such an imbalance.
We really can't afford to ignore this reality, because the consequences of our actions are huge – especially our casual and unconscious destruction of ecosystems. Things are already collapsing spectacularly, from money to political systems to crumbling underinvested sewage systems, to built on flood plains flooding, like we've just experienced – it was quite humbling being forced to live with the consequences of our actions, and to be connected with Nature by having it in our living room!
There are three things in particular that I have learned from bees: about the value of communication, the differences of female and male characteristics, and the purpose of competition. In effect, this sums up the difference between social honeybees, who are mostly female, and us herding animals, where we’re equal in number but male characteristics predominate. The thing that doesn't get said, so I’m saying it now, is that we live in a man made world. Man made plastics and endocrine disrupting chemicals inhabit every part of the planet, including our wombs. Man made beliefs and ideologies inhabit every part of our head (though of course they wouldn't be there without women's endorsement – we buy the stuff, we buy into the beliefs). It’s the difference between our competitive, territorial, hierarchical society – us, and a communicative, collaborative, non territorial, non hierarchical, amoral society - social honeybees. Social, by the way, is not socialist, or communist or anything ist – feminist, atheist..). Socialism and communism were one size fits all philosophies that tied up with industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their society is a difficult concept for us to comprehend because the idea of competition, and ownership and hierarchy and morality is so ingrained in our thinking and language and culture, especially now that we have settled and live in cities.
Firstly about the importance of communication, to everyone. It's the basis of community. Honeybees share information, about a source of food, or the location of a new home, in various complex ways. The waggle dance they do, decoded by someone called Karl von Frisch, and developed recently by Thomas Seeley, is their symbolic language, and it is a way of communicating that is unique to honeybees and humans. The angle of the dance relates to the position of the sun in relation to the nectar source, say, the duration of the dance relates to the distance to it, and the vigour of the dance relates to the quality of the nectar.
It's like a primitive map they’re marking out.
• So they dance, and we talk – or write – or draw maps. It is symbolic communication. If you’re evolving any society, communication is the key thing that holds a society together. The shared knowledge, and the division of labour that result from communication are so valuable. And the thing that makes societies, businesses, neighbours, families and relationships fall apart is a lack of communication, a lack of sharing information.
• What the honeybee has, that so many other creatures don’t have, apart from us, is an incredibly sophisticated communication system. It is this collaboration that enables them to be leaderless, and infinitely adaptable to change, and in us it is the root of innovation and creativity. The information we have shared over millennia has led to us evolving the most complex brains on the planet, and a massive range of technical and artistic innovations, culminating in the most revolutionary way of sharing information of all, the internet. And of course, it is Open source sharing i.e. Like the bees, free! The information is not owned; there is no intellectual property.
• However we have a problem that bees don't have, which is that we are bombarded with inaccurate, irrelevant, meaningless, misleading information that we have to use a lot of our time and energy to edit out. Those ads that flash at you when you’re online. Facebook, which gives the impression of perfect lives, like holiday slide shows or round robins. TED talks are a good antidote to that – does anyone know TED talks? [No] Technology Education Design, really good, short, 20 minute talks…
Anyway here's a quote from a TED talk by Juliana Rotich from Kenya who formed this company Ushahidi to enable better internet access for Africa. 'There is more that we're doing to explore this idea of collective intelligence… if I share the information with whatever device that I have, I could inform you about what is going on, and if you do the same, we can have a bigger picture of what's going on.'
Mobile phones have revolutionised Africa, and this connectivity has enabled trade and disease diagnostics for instance, and done more to educate children and alleviate poverty than any charitable aid like Bill Gates’ malaria cures for instance. However magnanimous and well - intentioned, most charity is a bit condescending and not allowing of autonomy or individual resourcefulness. Remember, by the way, that bees aren't at all charitable!
Communication and sharing increases the strength and resilience of families and communities. Extended families that is, not nuclear families, or divorced or geographically divided families, or feuding families, and definitely not single parent families who are handicapped on all sorts of levels. The honeybee colony is a family community of up to 50,000 half sisters and brothers.
• Has anyone heard of Elinor Ostrom? [No] She died last year. In her work TheTriumph of the commons, she champions cooperative behaviour, which greatly boosts the legitimacy of the commons, and sharing in general, as a framework for solving our social and environmental problems. Her work effectively debunks popular theories about the Tragedy of the Commons, which hold that private property is the only effective method to prevent finite resources from being ruined or depleted.
The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a scenario in which commonly held land is inevitably degraded because everyone in a community is allowed to graze livestock there. This parable was popularized by wildlife biologist Garrett Hardin in the late 1960s. But Ostrom’s research refutes this abstract concept with the real life experiences from places like Nepal, Kenya, Switzerland and Guatemala.
“When local users of a forest have a long-term perspective, they are more likely to monitor each other’s use of the land, developing rules for behavior,” she cites as an example.
I've noticed an increase in local community led volunteer events in Shepperton, which involve the local council and the business community. As we become more active in small communities like this, we start to operate beneath the radar of centralised control, which becomes irrelevant. And there is greater safety in numbers this way too if the numbers are not too large, and are looking out for each other, not trying to outdo each other.
By the way, talking of community spirit, the flooding in our area brought out the Dunkirk spirit in everybody, which was much more effective than complaining to the council about lack of sandbags!
The second thing is, we can understand the differences in female and male characteristics in their simplest form in honeybees, which is interesting because it challenges some stereotypes and reinforces others. These days the differences are played down, or else invoked as a way of having a go at each other, but actually the different characteristics are complementary.
All social animals on the planet, which include honeybees, are controlled by the females. The worker honeybee is female – 85% of the colony is worker bees - and she’s the one you will see foraging on flowers and possibly stinging you – she’s not sugar and spice, and definitely not a helpless passive victim. She’s practical and pragmatic. She's the one who does the communicating; she dances, looks after, looks out for, cleans the hive, nurses the brood, builds honeycomb, defends, and produces and processes food. So she's the housewife, builder, defender and breadwinner all in one - the ultimate multitasker. I should point out that she does all these jobs at different stages of her life, and not all at the same time, which is the usual definition of multitasking.
I'm glad to know that it is in my programming as a female, and quite normal, to enjoy looking after the grandchildren and cooking. Food gathering and processing is a female thing, from breastfeeding onwards. Yet we've become disconnected from it as food production has got more industrialised. Food used to be woman made; it isn't any more. Women need to reclaim food.
I'm also glad to find that I don't fit the victim martyr stereotype that you see portrayed in films and operas, and gone on about on Woman's Hour. Feminism fixates on the idea of women as victims of male oppression. And also glad that like worker bees, I'm not risk averse. They take a calculated risk every time they go out of the hive, which is much more often than their high risking brothers. There is so much emphasis on health and safety these days, which isn't healthy or safe, because it restricts children's ability to find out for themselves what is safe, and makes them fearful.
Actually the default settings of all humans are also female, which is why men are able to communicate and look after others, and have camaraderie and team spirit (though that often takes the form of cartels and old boy networks.)
‘All the male characters are modifications of the female embryo. At around 8 weeks of the embryo's development, the paired, globular, ovaries descend to become the testes under Y chromosome influence.’ [Robert Pickard]
So in this sense men are unlike drones, who are all male. They are called haploid, they come from unfertilized eggs. However drones, the male bees that is, like men, have an ability to focus, or have one track minds, to put it another way. For this they have greater visual spatial analysis than their sisters, with big eyes, all the better to spot the queen with in a big sky. In the case of men, the one track mind and their spatial analysis is an asset as well as a handicap. If it wasn't for Karl von Frisch's one track mind painting hundreds of bees and monitoring their movements, I wouldn't have known about the bee dance and wouldn't be talking to you now. With spatial analysis, men have the technical skills that create the internet, like Tim Berners Lee – and bicycles, and wheelbarrows, and silicon spatulas, and microfibre cloths and other things that are a girl's best friend and a boon to civilisation.
The drones, like men, are non aggressive – they don't have a sting. They don’t need a sting. They have their sisters to do the stinging for them. I am not a scientist, but I know from working alongside men, and from looking at most men walking in the street, that they’re not would be rapists with a killer instinct. There is no biological purpose in raping, because you have no input into the resulting offspring. When men are violent, it's because they feel like powerless losers: like angry young men for instance, or grumpy old men. Both are unlikely to get the girl. There are always more losers than winners. Did you know that testosterone levels are measurably low in violent men, or losers, and higher in confident, successful men?
The drone is also high risk and self destructive, like men – think jackass and suicide bombers, but also destroying the body with cigarettes, drugs, overeating and binge drinking. The drone dies when he mates successfully, i.e. wins.
And this is when he is highly competitive for one moment in his life. The strongest fastest healthiest drone will get to the queen first, and perpetuate the genes of the colony, and there you can see the fundamental purpose of competition within species: a competition between males for a female, to get the girl and fertilise the egg. In men it extends to getting territory, whether through conquest or takeover bids, or persuading us to buy things 'because we're worth it', but it has the same function.
• Drones are valuable in the colony – so beekeepers who get rid of drones do them a disservice because larger numbers mean greater genetic diversity. There is the same problem with artificial insemination, another one of the ways we try to control nature – no one knows whether the drone would have been a winner that way.
• Seeing the enormous amount of time and resources invested by their sisters in drones highlights the importance of fathers. Of course, drones die after mating, but human fathers' offspring depend on their investment of time, not as authority figures but as mentors and companions, for their sense of worth and validation. The offspring share both parents' genes equally remember. The lack of fathers being around is yet another reason for collapsing societies. And companies in America, where care-giving men are discriminated against, do less well. Luckily, other parts of the world value fathers more. Sweden has generous paternity benefits – a report showed men who shared parental leave equally with their partner took fewer sick days than male peers who took less parental leave. Denmark supports parents too, and is the happiest country in the world apparently.
So the third thing to say is about competition. Worker bees don't compete. I'm glad to know that it is not in female programming to be competitive, because I find competitions really tedious and pointless. They don't compete because there is no need to, and bees, like everything in nature, don't waste energy and resources doing anything they don't need to do. There is no territory to defend, no one owns anything. There are no winners and losers. No one is more or less important than anyone else, they are all valuable. Even the drones that don't mate maintain harmony in the hive by their presence, and there is evidence that their pheromones regulate the brood production in the hive. The queen is the mother, as I said not the boss, so they don't need to establish any hierarchies or obey any rules – they regulate themselves by communicating.
It just goes to show that everyday life is possible without competition. This is particularly hard for us to get our heads around because competition is so prevalent in human society, and everything that goes with it, like hierarchy and morality. When we see ourselves as authority figures over our children, with the power to withhold treats or give time out, and we accept and vote for leaders, it's hard to grasp the idea of a society where none of that happens.
• Male characteristics predominate in human society, which explains the instinct to compete, which we can see in its simplest form in the drones. Drones just compete and die when they win. With more complex animals like us, establishing territory or ownership, and hierarchies are part of competitive behaviour. The winner occupies his position, whether physical territory, intellectual property or the moral high ground, and resists all challenges to it, dedicating his life to retaining this position, resisting change and preserving the status quo.
• War is the most obvious example of competition, including price wars; war on want; the battle for hearts and minds; the fight for equality. The war on Nature of course.
• There is a competitive element in almost everything we do and say. Practically everything turns into a competition. There is a belief that competition is A Good Thing – it’s healthy competition, or friendly competition:
-Beekeepers have honey competitions. (I’m constantly struck by how unlike bees beekeepers are…)
-- There is the great British bake off. Strictly Come Dancing.
• Children are encouraged to enter design competitions. Why? What's the point? Why does one have to win and the rest to lose? They each produce something unique and valid, but this prescriptive approach only stifles their imagination.
• Then there is the rivalry between Macs vs Microsoft - my Mac won't coordinate with Microsoft Outlook and vice versa. There is iPhone vs Android. We get competing phone internet providers. We get energy companies competing for our custom. Why? It's the same energy being supplied, the same water. None is offering better or worse energy or water than the other. Practically every page of the Financial Times mentions the word competition. Debate is competition between opposing points of view.
Bearing in mind the biological purpose of competition, none of these examples seem to have anything to do with males getting the girl and fertilising the egg.
Essentially, competition is about conflict and conquest. The winner requires others to lose. So it disrupts communication and collaboration. It causes suffering. It has extended to a very destructive and unwinnable competition with Nature. Why has this happened?
We’re so intelligent, we’ve got such complex brains, why has this happened?
Competition is meant to be between males for females, so why has it become a competition between men and women? The relationship between male and female is complementary - in Nature, in honeybees, in humans, like yin and yang. The quality of the offspring depend on it. Conflict, ending in rows and divorce, just undermines that dynamic. So why does this happen?
Well, my conclusion is it’s because of the male competitive instinct!
The view that competition is inevitable is based on a misinterpretation of Darwin's 'survival of the fittest'. What he meant was survival of the most adaptable to change, not the winners in a fight. He also observed bees building honeycomb, by the way, to show that their production of such a perfect, strong, light, hexagonal structure was not God's miracle but the result of working together - i.e. Communicating and collaborating….
[showed drawn comb]
One interesting facet of competitive behaviour is deception, which happens in nature among more complex animals. Dog's hackles raise to give the illusion of size, and the splendidly named splendid fairy wren mimics the sound of their predator to get the female to come to him for protection. Like other competitive behaviour, deception is ubiquitous in human society. We are being courted to spend £4.99 on something, or to vote for a politician's promise. We are conned on a daily basis. And the effect of this is that eventually no one believes anyone, corruption prevails and societies, businesses and relationships etc collapse. Communication breaks down. Eventually we wise up and don't vote for politicians or dictators, or buy things we don't want or need, and corruption dissipates by people communicating, beneath the radar of political control.
The word credit comes from credence, or credibility, which is the basis for trade, which is what we and bees do. Among bees trust is automatic because the information is accurate – it has to be. It has nothing to do with morality.
Morality is unique to humans – it's part of our feeling of being exceptional and superior, but there is no morality or immorality anywhere else in nature, including in honeybees. Bees have no morals, but we project morality onto bees, which is why they are linked to the church, and vicars and monks. (There was a commercial reason behind this of course - beeswax used to be used as currency for medieval monks, the candles provided light.) Bees look after others and work hard and all the other things we interpret as moral, but they do these things because it's in the interest of the colony's survival, not because they love each other or because they are good.
• Honeybees and the rest of Nature manage without morality, whereas we devote an enormous amount of time and energy into establishing a moral hierarchy of who is better or worse, good or bad, greedy, selfish, hubristic, valuable or valueless. Nelson Mandela was hailed as a good man for advocating reconciliation over retribution, but he wasn’t heroic, just pragmatic. It was just intelligent, just good sense.
• Like competition, morality is ingrained in our thinking. My language is no doubt littered with moralistic references, which I’m sure you’ll pick up. But the problem with morality is that when there is constant judgement and criticism, self confidence evaporates, and you get an individual who feels useless and worthless. And heroes and 'good' people inevitably fall off their pedestals too.
• We are not immoral. The problems for bees and other insects that we have all created - not just beekeepers, not just pesticide companies - is not down to greed or malice, but lack of awareness. But every one of us destroying ecosystems, with every habitat or source of forage that gets paved over for parking or barbecues, will also create problems for ourselves one way or another.
This sign is at the entrance to the Pitt Rivers Natural History Museum in Oxford:
‘There are 1.25m known species on Earth - 75% of them are insects.
Insects are key components in every food chain. Without them global ecosystems would collapse’
Honeybees are a microcosm of the wider environment , that we are able to see in the beehive. They’re like the canaries in the coal mine. And they have declined by 55% in the UK.
So there's much more to say about bees, but I hope this haiku sums up what I've been trying to get across about them today:
• In the spirit of the hive
• Not competition
In other words, learn from bees!.... Thank you!
[In the following q&a session, questions were asked about:
• how to help bees - Plant trees!: http://www.guildfordbeekeepers.org.uk/trees-for-bees
• Pollination: List of crop plants pollinated by bees – http://snipurl.com/26ujiwk
• http://www.thehoneygatherers.com/html/photolibrary1.html beautiful photographs by The Bee Photographer Eric Tourneret]
As the talk was about free information, I had to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, so the speaker’s fee was donated to Bees Abroad, a small UK-registered charity seeking to reduce poverty through beekeeping in Africa. Bees Abroad offers training and support in beekeeping and adding value to hive products. They focus on Trade not Aid - trading knowledge (of bees and beekeeping, as well as marketing training,) for all the cultural and material resources we have got from Africa.