Saturday, January 18, 2020

To Bee or not to Bee

We humans and bees (also ants) have lots in common. Both are social and live in complex societies. Communication is very important to us. Division of labour and specialisation exists in both the societies. Risk management is critical to both – more about it at the end.
A colony of bees consists of 20,000-60,000 honey bees and one queen. Worker honey bees are female and do all the work. Larger than the worker bees, the male honey bees (also called drones), have no stinger and produce offspring for the colony.
Life cycle of a worker bee is 5 – 7 weeks and they have defined work as per their age
Week 1 – Clean the honeycomb, feed larvae
Week 2 – Build Honeycomb, receive food from incoming bees
Week 3 – Guard the hive, remove dead bees
Week 4 onwards – get nectar, pollen, water
The busy bee is really busy!!
  • Honey bees must gather nectar from two million flowers and fly about 90,000 miles – three times around the globe – to make one pound of honey.
  • The average bee will make only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • A honey bee visits 50 to 100 flowers during a collection trip.
  • A honey bee can fly for up to six miles, and as fast as 15 miles per hour.
  • The queen bee can live up to 5 years and is the only bee that lays eggs. She is the busiest in the summer months, when the hive needs to be at its maximum strength, and lays up to 2500 eggs per day.
  • Honey has always been highly regarded as a medicine. It is thought to help with everything from sore throats and digestive disorders to skin problems and hay fever.
  • Honey bees have been producing honey in the same way for 150 million years.
  • The honey bee is the only insect that produces food eaten by man.
  • Honey lasts forever.
  • Bees make honey so that they can eat it in the winter when there are less flowers.

Honey bees use movement, odour cues, and even food exchanges to communicate. After collecting nectar and pollen from many different flowers, bees fly back to their colonies. They regurgitate nectar, mixed with enzymes, and expose the mixture to the air for several days, creating honey. Pollen is mixed with nectar to form a protein-rich substance called beebread. Beebread is primarily used to feed young developing bees, called larvae. Odour cues transmit important information to members of the honey bee colony. When a worker honey bee stings, it produces a pheromone that alerts her fellow workers to the threat. That's why a careless intruder may suffer numerous stings if a honey bee colony is disturbed.

Honey bee workers perform a series of movements, often referred to as the "waggle dance," to inform other workers the location of food sources more than 150 meters from the hive. Scout bees fly from the colony in search of pollen and nectar. If successful in finding good supplies of food, the scouts return to the hive and "dances" on the honeycomb. After performing the waggle dance, the scout bees may share some of the food with the following workers, to communicate the quality of the food supply available at the location.

The honey bee dance was observed and noted by Aristotle as early as 330 BC. Karl von Frisch, a professor of zoology in Munich, Germany, earned the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his ground breaking research on this dance language. His book The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees, published in 1967, presents fifty years of research on honey bee communication.

The scout bees play a very imp role in the diversification of the food sources for the colony. You see, some bees ignore the “waggle dance” and keep going further to find other food sources. The idea is to diversify in a way that there are multiple sources of food for the colony at all times. The trick is in optimisation – enough bees should go to an established source so as to collect most of the available food and some should keep scouting for new sources so that the risk of running out of food is minimal. One can also argue that the most progress that humankind has made has been from people who like these scouts have ignored the conventional wisdom and taken the road less travelled to new discoveries.  
Are we making the best use of our time? Are we optimising our time between the short and long term objectives? Are we in a symbiotic relationship with nature like bees and flowers? Are we making the society better with our individual contributions and working with one another? Perhaps we still have a lot to learn from the bees.
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