One of the kindergarteners who was listening to my bee presentation raised her hand, “I went to the Children’s Museum and saw the beehive they have there. We saw the queen and she had a little crown on her.” I tried to be encouraging and positive but pointed out it was probably just the dot the beekeeper painted on the queen to make her easier to locate. She said, “Nope. It was a crown. I saw it.” Okay. I’ve learned not to argue when a kindergartener expresses certainty.
Over the last few years I have found primary school kids enjoy hearing about beehives almost as much as I like talking about them. I expected the kids to be fascinated by the queen bee but I didn’t expect the question I hear from nearly every class I visit: “Is there a king bee?”
The short answer is no.
The long answer is there is a classic blues tune by Muddy Waters called “I’m a King Bee” that everyone should know, but no. I keep this answer to myself to avoid uncomfortable following questions about a song dripping with innuendo and marital infidelity.
The prevailing wisdom about queen bees I learned as a kid in school was the queen ruled the hive and directed the actions of the worker bees. More recent research has shown that conclusion had more to do with the attitudes of an earlier day about the correctness of autocratic leadership. The urge to anthropomorphize bees, to view their actions as a reflection of human experience, reaches far back into our history. I had wondered how much of the current explanation of the beehive’s collective decision making was just endowing the bees with our modern opinions about democracy. But our new understanding about the relation between the queen bee and the workers seems to be based on good, hard science
The other evening I was reading in Tom Seeley’s book “Honeybee Democracy” ** about how worker bees harass a queen bee in preparation for swarming (and I have promised a discussion of swarming, but again that story is going to have to wait). “The workers begin to show mild hostility toward their mother, shaking, pushing, and lightly biting her.” (Seeley, p. 37) The queen is forced to exercise in order to lose weight and prepare for flight out of the hive, surrounded by tens of thousands of her supporters in a swarm. It is how the hive reproduces, but through the lens of the news of the day it looks a lot like exile.
I am going, in this venue, to try to avoid anthropomorphizing the beehive and trotting out too many tired morals from the bees about the value of selflessness and cooperative effort. But the research is showing the worker bees’ collective decision making generally results in the greatest benefit to their society.
And I am going to try to avoid politics. If you want politics, come by the house and pour me a glass of wine. But the lesson in this discussion seems to be too important to be left unstated: Be wary when leaders try to limit our ability to work together in groups and control their actions. It is a recurring thread through the history of autocratic rule and it is rarely in the interest of the common good.
**Full disclosure: I need to mention that I have a very small amount of money invested in a mutual fund that has a not insubstantial position in Amazon.com. I provide the link not for financial self-interest but in the interest of nationwide convenience. I would rather you find the book at a local bookstore like Nonesuch Books in South Portland but their website doesn’t provide handy links to specific books. They do however provide friendly, intelligent, helpful, actual human beings who can help you find any book you desire.