Think Like a Bee

The featured image of this post of the man moving a bee hive isn’t particularly impressive without some context but it’s actually a prelude to utter carnage. The hive, located in a suburban back yard in Brisbane, is that of a native Australian stingless bee species, Tetragonula carbonaria. Obviously it’s human made; it’s emblematic of an emerging industry cum hobby which is taking hold in the north and east of Australia (where the climate is warm enough for the bees to thrive). For various reasons, these and two other species of native bees are being kept in greater numbers in Australian backyards, market gardens, farms, orchards, and schools. The reasons range from pollination services to honey and propolis (a mixture of wax and tree resin)production to the simple pleasure of having a beehive on the verandah. Certainly, it helps that these bees don’t sting, and it also helps that they are native; many Australians are developing a strong, albeit selective, aversion to introduced species. The current conditions in Australia are just right for the domestication of three new bee species.

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Now you might think that keeping bees is a simple matter of setting up the right conditions and installing a hive. Certainly, the hive position is crucial as the bees need sufficient shelter, warmth, and forage to be able to thrive. But the keeping of stingless bees also involves some consideration of the ways that bees think, and this is what interests me.

I’m in a suburban back yard in Brisbane with pollination biologist Tim Heard, where he keeps a score of stingless bee hives. It’s a paradise for a bee with abundant flowers, not just in this yard but in the entire suburb, as the bees, who can forage up to 500 meters, have a lot food and resin available which they store in their hives. Tim is giving me a lesson in bee perception and bee aggression.  He picks up a hive and carries it across to the other side of the yard where he places it on the ground in front of another hive. I take the above photograph. He removes the other hive from its pedestal and installs the first hive. He then takes the second one across the yard to where the first one was and sets it up on the first hive’s pedestal. It is not long before there is action.

Bee 02 Tetragonula Carbonaria By Arian Suresh 768x512

One characteristic of stingless bees is their aggression towards each other. They may be vegetarians and harmless to humans but very few insects match stingless bees in terms of the scale of their fights and destruction that results when two hives engage in conflict. These conflicts normally occur when bees from one hive form a swarm and attempt to take over another hive. The bees of the other hive defend their home and lock mandibles with the attackers, normally falling to the ground and dying, locked together in mortal combat. These battles are of such scale and ferocity that by battle’s end, there will be a carpet of dead bees several centimeters thick beneath the hive entrance. And these usurpations even occur between different bee species so that a beekeeper not paying attention might one day open her hive to find the species of the occupants has changed!

The demonstration Tim is giving me is what happens when the wrong bees arrive at the wrong hive. Having swapped the hives, we watch as foragers who were out collecting nectar and pollen arrive back at what they think is their hive and attempt to get inside and deposit their goods. The worker bees keeping watch over their hive immediately recognize the foragers as not of their hive and, thinking it is an attack, instigate a defensive reaction. They swarm at the entrance and begin construction of a propolis barrier to keep the invaders out. While this is happening, I watch as a defender locks mandibles with a returning forager and they fall to the ground where they will surely die. Before things get out of hand, Tim hastily returns the hives to their original positions and lets things settle down.

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For a beekeeper, fighting swarms and defensive reactions are somewhat traumatic. On the one hand it isn’t pleasant to see your bees slaughtering each other and piling up dead on the ground. On the other, the defensive reaction in bees takes away from the more productive activities such as honey and propolis production.  So beekeepers take steps to keep things peaceful among their hives. While fighting swarms are poorly understood and difficult to prevent, the defensive reactions to wayward foragers – the kind of reaction I have just seen in Tim’s back yard – are to some degree preventable. And this is what interests me most about stingless bee keeping: the ways in which keepers use insights into bee perception to keep the peace.

For a beekeeper to be able to prevent a misplaced defensive reaction, she needs to be able to understand what triggers one: a forager returning to the wrong hive and the resident bees perceiving this as an attack. So, on the one hand, she needs to ensure that the resident bees don’t perceive any intruders which entails making sure foragers don’t make the mistake of returning to the wrong hive . For her to do this, she needs to be able to understand how foragers see the world. Tim discusses this with me at length – the way that bees in the bush must navigate a relatively homogeneous environment and be able to return to the hive. In the case of kept bees, they are often in far more heterogeneous environments with lots of cues to the locations of their hives. But they are also kept in closer proximity to each other than their wild cousins. So beekeepers give their foragers some assistance in recognizing their homes. One way is to make sure they are not lined up along fence-lines with no clear indication of which hive is which. Another way is to paint different symbols on the hives; symbols that the foragers learn to recognize. (There has been no experimentation on the amount of detail needed for bees to differentiate symbols but this is a potentially rife area of study). While this might seem a simple solution to the problem of differentiating hives, it is in fact a complex and distinctively human attribute. To access the perceptual world of another species and then employ a way of influencing that perception is actually a remarkable thing in the animal kingdom, and it shows how the domestication of other animals is not just a matter of establishing the right conditions for another species so that you might share in some of their plenty. Ants do this with aphids. Instead, what humans do is to influence other species’ behaviors by gaining access to their perceptual worlds. I would argue that this is a form of practical wisdom: thinking like an animal-other in order to anticipate the other’s needs, wants, and in the case of bees, deadly mistakes.