Eureka! Bees talk with ‘toots’ and ‘quacks’

Queen bees: They sing duets with each other, study finds. © Anand Varma

Should bees run the world? Bee colonies are highly organised and hugely successful societies built on cooperation and hard work. Some say we have a lot to learn from these social insects.

It’s all the buzz in science today.

A fascinating new study has recorded the sounds of queen bees tooting and quacking, in a complex duet that researchers believe is designed to control the royal succession and prevent civil war in the bee queendom.

It is further evidence (if any were needed) that bees are amazing. For millennia, humans have admired their selfless, industrious, cooperative behaviour whilst despairing at humanity’s inability to learn from them.

So, perhaps it’s time we put them in charge. Let’s look at the bee plan for government.

Bigger better families. Household sizes have fallen to historic low-levels across the industrialised world as more people live alone and have fewer children. There is a loneliness epidemic and a childcare crisis. Under our new bee overlords, this will all change.

We will live in purpose-built, state-of-the-art nests with our 10,000 sisters. Yes, the new society will be mostly female and will only need one male drone bee for every 100 females workers.

His only role will be to leave the colony and find a mate. Any male bees still in the nest in autumn will be forcibly removed so as not to be a burden on food supplies through the winter.

Working for the common good. Modern life is making us stressed, unhappy, and self-obsessed. The bees will solve all these modern maladies by giving us a new sense of purpose and a strong work ethic. We will serve the queen bee and will be assigned tasks to benefit the common good of society.

Don’t worry about getting bored because everyone will have a go at cleaning, child-care, construction, undertaking, guard-duty, and foraging. However, don’t expect holiday or retirement. After six weeks, you will probably die of exhaustion. But you will die happy.

Bee prepared. Everyone will be armed with a venomous sting and must be ready to defend the colony against invasion. Intruders will be dealt with swiftly and without mercy.

Occasionally, you may be conscripted into wars with other hives but, rest assured, your certain death will not be in vain.

Bee healthy. Hive hygiene is essential to prevent disease and infection. Thankfully, bees have designed a special antibacterial glue to protect the nest. However, do not expect to be looked after if you fall ill.

Sick bees commit altruistic suicide and leave the hive so as not to infect the rest of the colony.

So, should bees really run the world?

To bee or not to bee

No! Bee society is like the worst totalitarian regime where freedom of speech and individual expression is suppressed. We humans may be lazier, less organised, and less cooperative than the bees, but we are far better at welcoming strangers, helping the vulnerable, and celebrating difference.

Yes, say others, we can learn a lot from the bees. Our selfish preoccupation with satisfying our individual needs is making us unhappy and it destroying society and the planet. A bee foraging for nectar and pollen is working for something much bigger than itself – something which will exist long after it is gone.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be a bee?
  2. Can bees teach us how to live better lives?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture of a world ruled by bees.
  2. Write a story about a bee that wants to be an individual and rebels against the hive.

Some People Say...

“For so work the honey bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.”

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), English poet and playwright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The ancient Greeks were the first to think about bees as an ideal form of society, where the individual is virtuously dedicated to the collective good. Sixteenth and 17th-Century English royalists saw the divine right of kings in the natural order of the hive. In the French Revolution, the beehive was adopted as a symbol of the civic equality and fraternity of the new Republic. Later, Karl Marx wrote that the modern factory is run like a hive, dehumanising its workers.
What do we not know?
Scientists are constantly learning new things about these strange insects. These discoveries show that it is far too simplistic to describe bee society as a monarchy, a republic, capitalism, or communism. It’s much more interesting than that. However, we can still ask whether there is anything the bees can teach us about living together and finding a common purpose.

Word Watch

Royal succession
A hive will keep new queen bees sealed in cells until the current queen “swarms” away from her hive to start a new colony. The trapped queens “quack” to be released and, once out of their cell, they switch to “tooting” so that no more queens are accidentally freed. If there are two queens, they will fight to the death.
Millennia
Thousands of years.
Industrious
Hard working.
Childcare crisis
The rising cost of childcare is a growing social problem in Europe and North America. Bees have found an efficient solution: the sterile worker bees care for the queen’s larvae, allowing her to lay 2,000 eggs a day.
Nests
Man-made structures are called beehives. The nests are designed with one entrance for protection from intruders; insulation and ventilation to control temperature, and purpose-built cells for pollen, honey, and the different worker, drone, and queen broods.
Modern life
A 2015 YouGov poll found that 37% of Britons found their jobs meaningless. Critics of capitalism argue that it is too individualistic and does not give us a sense of fulfilment.
Maladies
Diseases or sicknesses.
Work ethic
A belief that hard work has a moral benefit, strengthening character and individual abilities.
Assigned
Alllocated; given (a job or task).
Undertaking
Burying the dead.
Foraging
Searching for food.
Venomous
Poisonous.
Invasion
Bees will go to extreme lengths to protect their colony. In Japan, honeybees will swarm an attacking hornet and use their vibrating bodies to suffocate and “cook” the hornet to death.
Conscripted
Forced to join the army.
Wars
Australian bees have been observed fighting wars over several months to take possession of well-positioned hives, at the cost of thousands of lives.
Antibacterial glue
Bees collect water and tree resin, which they combine to make a glue called propolis. They store this multipurpose glue to build defensive walls and insulation. If a lizard or a small mammal enters the hive, they will mummify it in propolis to prevent it from rotting.
Altruistic suicide
Researchers believe sick bees abandoning hives en masse (in a large group) is the main cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This phenomenon has caused bee populations to decline globally in recent years.
Totalitarian
Government that is dictatorial and requires citizens to complete obey the state.

Subjects

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