The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees is a short story that imagines that wasps paper nests are intricate, microscopic maps. Wasps collect information about the world and note it in their Great Library at the centre of the colony, which is presided by a “foundress”.
When the wasps invade bee territory and subjugate the bees (remember bees are furry vegetarian wasps), this allows for the development of anarchist bees, who decide that a monarchy is not for them and there should be no leadership. So they set up their own rival anarchist colony. Read the story here to find out what happens to that colony – it is a good example of what happens when a natural system is overridden. It is also a great example of why we need to be aware of the limits of our metaphors: while bees are interesting to study in terms of their organisation, their society is organised in ways that are fundamentally different (more on that here).
There are a couple of interesting observations that emerge from this story: a) the myth of leadership in the colony in which the queen dictates over subjects continues and b) animal structures record environmental information.
The Monarchy Myth
The queen is not a leader even though she is the most important element of the bee colony. If she didn’t fulfil her role of laying eggs the colony would quickly perish. The role of the colony is to create the circumstances that are conducive to the continuation of life, and if there is no new life, the purpose of the colony disappears.
In a honeybee colony once the queen stops laying and there is no hope of a new queen being created, the workers start laying their own unfertilised eggs as a last ditch attempt to get the colony’s gametes to continue.
As well as laying up to 2,000 eggs a day, the queen is also vital in terms of creating a colony identity. Her pheromone is passed from bee to bee and that scent is a marker of belonging to her colony. This pheromone also suppresses the egg-laying instincts of the sterile workers (all her daughters).
But, she is not a leader. She is the focus of the life support duties the workers carry out, but does not direct them. Each bee actually responds to its immediate environment, which includes other bees. When a bee receiving the nectar from foragers has been idle due to an oversupply of receivers and a shortage of foragers, it will reassign itself to foraging. It has not received central or local direction.
The comb maps the world
If you know how to read it, the comb of a bee colony provides a fairly accurate representation of the world outside. The pollen deposits at the bottom of the cells represent quite clearly the flora in the environs of the hive.
To “patrolling” bees – middle-aged workers who meander the face of the comb throughout the nest – the comb is laded with information about the state of the colony and the environment outside. The beekeeper is not quite as intimate with the representations of the world encoded in the comb.
This hive near St Paul’s Catherdal is fortunate to have Crocuse and Lupins planted nearby, as well as Horse Chestnuts and Elder. The bright orange might suggest that nearby gardeners have heeded beekeepers words to leave weeds such as dandelions, or that they have planted snowdrops, for the early season.
The volume of nectar could suggest the balance between rainy days to water plants to produce nectar and sunny days for the bees to collect.
Like tree rings and ice cores the comb of the honeybee colony can tell us about its environment in ways we haven’t yet conceived.