Honeybees Part II

If I had a blog, today I would write some more about my love for honeybees.

00-10032012_105516 webPondering honeybees again today. I mentioned in an earlier blog that we are hosting a large number of bees at our hummingbird feeders this summer and my daily interaction with these little souls has given me food for thought.

This afternoon, I spent twenty minutes trying to entrap a bee that had come in the house on one of the hummy feeders. She sneaked in underneath the feeder and immediately flew to the high windows in the dining room in an attempt to regain her freedom. First I tried gently wrapping her in a Kleenex, but she wriggled free and went even higher. Then I got a tall chair and a glass bottle and tried to coax her inside, but every time I pulled the bottle away, she flew out. Finally, I trapped her in the bottle and slid a piece of cardboard over the opening. Success! I took her outside and away she flew.

Why all the bother? Why not just get the fly swatter and make an end of the little stinger? Because honeybees are brave in my book. They are gentle, and wise, and have chosen a life far nobler than that of human beings because a honeybee cannot defend itself or its hive without paying the ultimate price.

When a worker bee stings an animal with thick skin (like most mammals), her barbed stinger (all workers are female) remains embedded in the skin of her victim. When the bee pulls away after stinging, her internal organs and the venom sac come out with the stinger. This kills the bee, but the venom sac continues to pump venom into the victim making the barbed stinger a very effective weapon against large predators such as bears and humans, who can decimate an entire honey-store in minutes. Also, because worker bees do not reproduce on their own, their sacrifice insures the survival of the queen and thus the survival of the colony.

Another reason for this altruism is genetic: Female bees are more closely related to their sisters than to their own children. This is because bees are “haplodiploid,” meaning females have two copies of every chromosome, but males only one. You’ll have to trust me on the math, but the end result is: Worker bees are 75% genetically identical to their sisters, but would only be 50% identical to their children. This evolutionary process, called kin selection, means it makes evolutionary sense for a worker to forgo reproduction, and even sacrifice her own life, if it helps her sisters.

Although I don’t suppose bees ponder whether to sting or not to sting, it still gives me pause to consider that there is a species where this kind of selflessness is built in. It makes me wonder what the world would be like if humans had the same kind of limitations. What if we had to give our life if we took that of another? Would we so readily go to war,  brandish guns against intruders or engage in violent crime? In a time where humans are killing one another with seeming indifference, what a change would take place if we had to choose whether to kill based on whether or not we were willing to sacrifice our lives in the process. Just a little food for thought.

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