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queen-bee-682941_960_720Watching reruns of the television series Elementary last night, Sherlock mentions twice the phrase, “Biology dictates behavior.”

In the beehive the genetics of the queen and the multiple drones she mated with is manifested in the behaviors of the workers. While honey bees progress through different work tasks according to their age, other behaviors are less defined and not seen as routine. That is to say, all bees begin as house bees and start by cleaning cells. They progress through various jobs as they age becoming nurse bees, feeding larvae, cleaning the hive of trash and dead bees, tending to the queen, wax excretion, moving nectar, and fanning the nectar or cooling the hive. However, most of these jobs are not compulsory nor do all bees perform all of these tasks as they age. There simply isn’t a need for all bees to progress through the task of feeding the queen nor is there a need for thousands of undertaker bees. The bees tend to have some degree of flexibility in shifting behaviors to meet the needs of the colony. But there is no macro view of the colony so how do they know what tasks need performing to be able to change behaviors. (Imagine an Amazon.com warehouse where all the workers seemingly just know what to do every day when they report to work.)

The same can be said of those bees that have graduated from house bee status and become foraging bees. Some specialize in pollen, other propolis, water, and still others nectar. The bees shift amongst these tasks depending on the needs of the colony but, again, their is no central command issuing “orders of the day” to direct these tasks. Yet, remarkably, the jobs get done.

So what determines bee behavior? We know that there is a biofeedback loop based on pheromones produced by the bees and that the queen has a major role in signaling, through pheromones, the colony needs and wellbeing. That’s one method of directing the day-to-day activities but it doesn’t fully account for the flexibility observed in an organization comprised of tens of thousands of bees operating on a day to day basis and responding to changes that take place in the environment and within the hive.

Let’s consider defensive behavior within a colony. Beekeepers may miss or overlook a lot of bee behavior but they seldom fail to observe a colony that is more defensive than others. Often referred to as “hot,” these colonies stand out to the beekeeper and rightly so as it’s not fun working a colony of bees intend on displaying defensive or aggressive behavior. Once again though, we typically find that even in colonies that display higher than normal defensive behavior we don’t usually see thousands of bees dedicating themselves to delivering their sting, and their life, to the cause. Most often there is one or several ready to act on the behalf of defending the colony. Additionally a measured response is noted with the bees ratcheting up the response as alarm pheromone is spread and triggering more and more bees to act. It’s biology in action.

But it begins with a genetic predisposition to act, either sooner or later, to a stimulus. Some bees tend to jump on the bandwagon early in delivering their venom payload to the unsuspecting beekeeper, seemingly before a genuine need exists to become defensive. If this behavior is excessive beekeepers blame the queen. Of course it may, in fact, be the genetics passed on from one or more of the multiple drones she mated with on her nuptial flight. But regardless, she gets the blame and is sought out for execution for this undesirable trait. The beekeeper replaces her with a queen of better disposition and through normal attrition of her progeny, and the more gentle temperament of the new queen’s offspring, the colony takes on a different personality.

And where in the above is anything other than the title of this article, “Biology dictates behavior.” There are no feelings involved. There is no sorrow for the old queen within the hive. There is nothing but the now of queen-rightness, the sensed reality of queen-lessness, and then the resumption of being queen-right. It’s stimulus response. Should a beekeeper kill the old queen without a replacement the bees simply initiate the replacement process. No rituals exist, no beliefs cloud the process, no judgement, and no processing of the loss. The bees carry on and make plans for the colony’s survival without missing a beat. The hive may fail but they will, through their genetics and biology go forward pushed by urges provided by pheromones (or lack thereof) and their genetic predispositions. Biology dictates behavior.

The beekeeper may wish to mourn the loss of a valued queen but that mourning is for the beekeeper alone. And the new beekeeper does mourn – at least the ones I have met. I too found it difficult to kill the queen early in my beekeeping. The mourning, whether for a queen or a colony, takes it’s emotional toll on some. I’ve met those that said they got out of beekeeping after losing a couple hives because, “It was too hard losing the bees.”

New beekeepers resist what is while the bees do not. Truly to understand the bees we need to learn from them. To force our understanding of them into our mental framework removes the beekeeper from a true understanding. Understanding them through our rose colored glasses discredits the bees and moves us further from what they offer us.

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