Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hive-Mind: The Man Behind the Curtain

Anthropomorphism is considered by many great minds to be self-indulgent, suggesting departure from truth and marking the human tendency to sentimentalize. But answer me this: how can we attempt to understand animal experience without framing it, in some meaningful way, with human experience?

Dog days of summer finally upon us here in NYC, honeybee colonies are at their strongest in number. The new, spring hive has housed a handful of generations of bees already, and the current inhabitants continue to work for a future that they'll never see.

Each pair of pollen pants tells a story. A fearless forager bumbles home, weighed down by the heavy pants, and waddles inside where her sisters take a load off Sally. The pollen pants will be transferred from Sally's legs to those famous hexagons that all bee fans know and love. Scientists originally thought that long ago, bees evolved by learning to build tiny hexagons when their non-hexagonal cells naturally smooshed into the six-sided cubbies. Now, it seems that the hexagons have always existed; in other words, Ma Nature imbued honeybees with the ability to build these fascinatingly precise wax cells at their very creation.

Who is the man behind the curtain? Who pulls the levers and pushes the buttons?

The Wizard of Oz builds a fantastical world upon an illusion of power. The queen bee (named anthropomorphically... you're busted, scientists...) exerts a similar illusion of power over her human fanatics. We love the Queen Bee... she's a fine-assed woman who won't take nothin from no one. She rules the roost with sass and class, right?

Wrong. The queen bee is more bumbling man behind the curtain than great and powerful wizard. Come on, Sir Francis Bacon and other haters, if you want to criticize anthropomorphism then don't call her Queen Bee in the science books. You might give people the wrong idea.

Although it is unclear who makes the decisions in a colony, meticulous observation suggests that decisions are reached by consensus in the honeybee world. All elections must eventually resolve themselves unanimously. Does one, sole honeybee organize it all? Does this honeybee pass down her role as hive-mind to a future sister by filling a single brood cell with knowledge? Only Ma Nature knows, and she's pretty tight-lipped.

Human cannot master bee. Within their ordered, efficient, just yet ruthless world, the hive-mind of the honeybee is as unpredictable as human history. How can't we anthropomorphize when speaking of honeybees? We're all just lonely animals trying to understand our own finite existences. The honeybee's short yet harried life gives us small, hexagon-shaped glimpses into our own small places in this widening gyre of consciousness.

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