Another bee activism weblink

Please investigate this thoroughly before commiting as this is not an endorsement but for information only. Thanks.

“Dear friends,

Billions of bees are dying, and it’s causing an environmental holocaust that threatens all of us. Most scientists agree pesticides are to blame, but pesticide companies are funding junk science that gives politicians an excuse to delay taking action. If enough of us pledge, we could launch a people-powered, totally independent study that finally challenges big pharma.

Right now, billions of bees are dying. Already, there are nowhere near enough honeybees in Europe to pollinate the crops, and in California — the biggest food producer in the US — beekeepers are losing 40% of their bees each year.

We’re in the middle of an environmental holocaust that threatens all of us, because without pollination by bees, most plants and ⅓ of our food supply are gone.

Scientists are sounding the alarm about pesticides that are toxic to bees, and say we’re using way, way more pesticides on our crops than we need. But as with oil companies and climate change, big drug companies that sell pesticides are fighting back with corporate-funded junk science that questions the evidence, and gives politicians an excuse to delay.

Scientific studies are expensive. Avaaz may be the only crowdsourced funding model in the world able to raise enough to fund the world’s first large scale, grass-roots supported, totally independent study of what’s killing our bees, that decisively challenges the junk science of big pharma. The need is urgent, and if we can’t do this, it’s not clear who can.”

Friends of the Earth: The Bee Cause

Whilst this website will not promote commercial causes, I do feel it is justified to indirectly support–without actually personally endorsing– legitimate non-profit fundraising drives on behalf of bee research and conservation. If you would like to learn more about bees and Friends of the Earth, their website is and their phone number is 0800 581 051. Their postal address is FREEPOST WD 1376, Friends of the Earth, 56-58 Alma Street, LUTON LU1 2YZ. Charity No. 281681. Many thanks.

“Why Bees Are Disappearing” by Marla Spivak

[The following is the transcript of a lecture from Edinburgh in June 2013 kindly referred to me by Lee Higham of Newcastle University who has kindly agreed to my publishing it verbatim here. Here also is the original TEDGlobal website source of the article which can also be viewed as a video:]

[Marla Spivak, Bees scholar: Marla Spivak researches bees’ behavior and biology in an effort to preserve this threatened but ecologically essential insect.]

“This is our life with bees, and this is our life without bees. Bees are the most important pollinators of our fruits and vegetables and flowers and crops like alfalfa hay that feed our farm animals. More than one third of the world’s crop production is dependent on bee pollination.

But the ironic thing is that bees are not out there pollinating our food intentionally. They’re out there because they need to eat. Bees get all of the protein they need in their diet from pollen and all of the carbohydrates they need from nectar. They’re flower-feeders, and as they move from flower to flower, basically on a shopping trip at the local floral mart, they end up providing this valuable pollination service. In parts of the world where there are no bees, or where they plant varieties that are not attractive to bees, people are paid to do the business of pollination by hand. These people are moving pollen from flower to flower with a paintbrush. Now this business of hand pollination is actually not that uncommon. Tomato growers often pollinate their tomato flowers with a hand-held vibrator. Now this one’s the tomato tickler. (Laughter) Now this is because the pollen within a tomato flower is held very securely within the male part of the flower, the anther, and the only way to release this pollen is to vibrate it. So bumblebees are one of the few kinds of bees in the world that are able to hold onto the flower and vibrate it, and they do this by shaking their flight muscles at a frequency similar to the musical note C. So they vibrate the flower, they sonicate it, and that releases the pollen in this efficient swoosh, and the pollen gathers all over the fuzzy bee’s body, and she takes it home as food. Tomato growers now put bumblebee colonies inside the greenhouse to pollinate the tomatoes because they get much more efficient pollination when it’s done naturally and they get better quality tomatoes.

So there’s other, maybe more personal reasons, to care about bees. There’s over 20,000 species of bees in the world, and they’re absolutely gorgeous. These bees spend the majority of their life cycle hidden in the ground or within a hollow stem and very few of these beautiful species have evolved highly social behavior like honeybees.

Now honeybees tend to be the charismatic representative for the other 19,900-plus species because there’s something about honeybees that draws people into their world. Humans have been drawn to honeybees since early recorded history, mostly to harvest their honey, which is an amazing natural sweetener.

I got drawn into the honeybee world completely by a fluke. I was 18 years old and bored, and I picked up a book in the library on bees and I spent the night reading it. I had never thought about insects living in complex societies. It was like the best of science fiction come true. And even stranger, there were these people, these beekeepers, that loved their bees like they were family, and when I put down the book, I knew I had to see this for myself. So I went to work for a commercial beekeeper, a family that owned 2,000 hives of bees in New Mexico. And I was permanently hooked.

Honeybees can be considered a super-organism, where the colony is the organism and it’s comprised of 40,000 to 50,000 individual bee organisms. Now this society has no central authority. Nobody’s in charge. So how they come to collective decisions, and how they allocate their tasks and divide their labor, how they communicate where the flowers are, all of their collective social behaviors are mindblowing. My personal favorite, and one that I’ve studied for many years, is their system of healthcare. So bees have social healthcare. So in my lab, we study how bees keep themselves healthy. For example, we study hygiene, where some bees are able to locate and weed out sick individuals from the nest, from the colony, and it keeps the colony healthy. And more recently, we’ve been studying resins that bees collect from plants. So bees fly to some plants and they scrape these very, very sticky resins off the leaves, and they take them back to the nest where they cement them into the nest architecture where we call it propolis. We’ve found that propolis is a natural disinfectant. It’s a natural antibiotic. It kills off bacteria and molds and other germs within the colony, and so it bolsters the colony health and their social immunity. Humans have known about the power of propolis since biblical times. We’ve been harvesting propolis out of bee colonies for human medicine, but we didn’t know how good it was for the bees. So honeybees have these remarkable natural defenses that have kept them healthy and thriving for over 50 million years.

So seven years ago, when honeybee colonies were reported to be dying en masse, first in the United States, it was clear that there was something really, really wrong. In our collective conscience, in a really primal way, we know we can’t afford to lose bees. So what’s going on? Bees are dying from multiple and interacting causes, and I’ll go through each of these. The bottom line is, bees dying reflects a flowerless landscape and a dysfunctional food system.

Now we have the best data on honeybees, so I’ll use them as an example. In the United States, bees in fact have been in decline since World War II. We have half the number of managed hives in the United States now compared to 1945. We’re down to about two million hives of bees, we think. And the reason is, after World War II, we changed our farming practices. We stopped planting cover crops. We stopped planting clover and alfalfa, which are natural fertilizers that fix nitrogen in the soil, and instead we started using synthetic fertilizers. Clover and alfalfa are highly nutritious food plants for bees. And after World War II, we started using herbicides to kill off the weeds in our farms. Many of these weeds are flowering plants that bees require for their survival. And we started growing larger and larger crop monocultures. Now we talk about food deserts, places in our cities, neighborhoods that have no grocery stores. The very farms that used to sustain bees are now agricultural food deserts, dominated by one or two plant species like corn and soybeans. Since World War II, we have been systematically eliminating many of the flowering plants that bees need for their survival. And these monocultures extend even to crops that are good for bees, like almonds. Fifty years ago, beekeepers would take a few colonies, hives of bees into the almond orchards, for pollination, and also because the pollen in an almond blossom is really high in protein. It’s really good for bees. Now, the scale of almond monoculture demands that most of our nation’s bees, over 1.5 million hives of bees, be transported across the nation to pollinate this one crop. And they’re trucked in in semi-loads, and they must be trucked out, because after bloom, the almond orchards are a vast and flowerless landscape.

Bees have been dying over the last 50 years, and we’re planting more crops that need them. There has been a 300 percent increase in crop production that requires bee pollination.

And then there’s pesticides. After World War II, we started using pesticides on a large scale, and this became necessary because of the monocultures that put out a feast for crop pests. Recently, researchers from Penn State University have started looking at the pesticide residue in the loads of pollen that bees carry home as food, and they’ve found that every batch of pollen that a honeybee collects has at least six detectable pesticides in it, and this includes every class of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and even inert and unlabeled ingredients that are part of the pesticide formulation that can be more toxic than the active ingredient. This small bee is holding up a large mirror. How much is it going to take to contaminate humans?

One of these class of insecticides, the neonicontinoids, is making headlines around the world right now. You’ve probably heard about it. This is a new class of insecticides. It moves through the plant so that a crop pest, a leaf-eating insect, would take a bite of the plant and get a lethal dose and die. If one of these neonics, we call them, is applied in a high concentration, such as in this ground application, enough of the compound moves through the plant and gets into the pollen and the nectar, where a bee can consume, in this case, a high dose of this neurotoxin that makes the bee twitch and die. In most agricultural settings, on most of our farms, it’s only the seed that’s coated with the insecticide, and so a smaller concentration moves through the plant and gets into the pollen and nectar, and if a bee consumes this lower dose, either nothing happens or the bee becomes intoxicated and disoriented and she may not find her way home. And on top of everything else, bees have their own set of diseases and parasites. Public enemy number one for bees is this thing. It’s called varroa destructor. It’s aptly named. It’s this big, blood-sucking parasite that compromises the bee’s immune system and circulates viruses.

Let me put this all together for you. I don’t know what it feels like to a bee to have a big, bloodsucking parasite running around on it, and I don’t know what it feels like to a bee to have a virus, but I do know what it feels like when I have a virus, the flu, and I know how difficult it is for me to get to the grocery store to get good nutrition. But what if I lived in a food desert? And what if I had to travel a long distance to get to the grocery store, and I finally got my weak body out there and I consumed, in my food, enough of a pesticide, a neurotoxin, that I couldn’t find my way home? And this is what we mean by multiple and interacting causes of death.

And it’s not just our honeybees. All of our beautiful wild species of bees are at risk, including those tomato-pollinating bumblebees. These bees are providing backup for our honeybees. They’re providing the pollination insurance alongside our honeybees. We need all of our bees.

So what are we going to do? What are we going to do about this big bee bummer that we’ve created? It turns out, it’s hopeful. It’s hopeful. Every one of you out there can help bees in two very direct and easy ways. Plant bee-friendly flowers, and don’t contaminate these flowers, this bee food, with pesticides. So go online and search for flowers that are native to your area and plant them. Plant them in a pot on your doorstep. Plant them in your front yard, in your lawns, in your boulevards. Campaign to have them planted in public gardens, community spaces, meadows. Set aside farmland. We need a beautiful diversity of flowers that blooms over the entire growing season, from spring to fall. We need roadsides seeded in flowers for our bees, but also for migrating butterflies and birds and other wildlife. And we need to think carefully about putting back in cover crops to nourish our soil and nourish our bees. And we need to diversify our farms. We need to plant flowering crop borders and hedge rows to disrupt the agricultural food desert and begin to correct the dysfunctional food system that we’ve created.

So maybe it seems like a really small countermeasure to a big, huge problem — just go plant flowers –but when bees have access to good nutrition, we have access to good nutrition through their pollination services. And when bees have access to good nutrition, they’re better able to engage their own natural defenses, their healthcare that they have relied on for millions of years. So the beauty of helping bees this way, for me, is that every one of us needs to behave a little bit more like a bee society, an insect society, where each of our individual actions can contribute to a grand solution, an emergent property that’s much greater than the mere sum of our individual actions. So let the small act of planting flowers and keeping them free of pesticides be the driver of large-scale change.

On behalf of the bees, thank you.


Chris Anderson: Thank you. Just a quick question. The latest numbers on the die-off of bees, is there any sign of things bottoming out? What’s your hope/depression level on this?

Maria Spivak: Yeah.At least in the United States, an average of 30 percent of all bee hives are lost every winter. About 20 years ago, we were at a 15-percent loss. So it’s getting precarious.

CA: That’s not 30 percent a year, that’s — MS: Yes, thirty percent a year.

CA: Thirty percent a year. MS: But then beekeepers are able to divide their colonies and so they can maintain the same number, they can recuperate some of their loss.

We’re kind of at a tipping point. We can’t really afford to lose that many more. We need to be really appreciative of all the beekeepers out there. Plant flowers.

CA: Thank you.”



David Dobereiner, retired architect and friend, has just sent interested and concerned Newcastle Philosophy Society members, like myself, the following “Credo” of ecological and ecocidal principles. I am posting it here in entirety, as I fully agree with all of David’s points–except for nos. 2 and 4 concerning the identification of inanimate with animate life–although Aristotle most definitely, and our own local moral philosopher, Mary Midgley, possibly, would not agree with me.
How about any of you?



1. Nature is all there is, was, or ever will be.

2. A fundamental attribute of nature is life.

3. A fundamental attribute of life is self optimization.

4. The distinction between animate and inanimate is a false one. Life pervades all

of nature in varying degrees of potentiality.

5. The distinction between humans and animals is a false one. Humans are

animals. Life manifests itself in all organisms in varying degrees of intensity

and self consciousness.

6. There appears to be two opposed impulses embedded in nature. On the one

hand, life, evolving from the good towards the better for itself and on the other

hand, entropy, or disintegration, which is against life.

7. As finite beings ourselves, we tend to conclude that in the end, one of these,

evolution or entropy, must finally triumph, annihilating the other. But in fact

there will be no end, because nature, time, space, movement, change and

diversity are all infinite, with no beginning and no end.

8. The life of an organism consists of a birth, life, and death. But each birth is

a new creation and each death feeds new life. Births and deaths are equally

necessary to the sustaining of living systems.

9. The fact that every individual organism may resemble its parents does not

detract from its uniqueness. Nature never repeats itself precisely. Perfection is

a myth, or rather the perfection of nature lies only in its infinite diversity.

10. Predominantly, males and females search for the most attractive specimen of

the other and reach the height of pleasure, joy, happiness and well-being in the

sexual climax that each brings to the other. The by-product may or may not be

the birth of another unique individual.

11. Machines reproduce. Organisms recreate, or more accurately, procreate.

12.Modernity has diverted the natural human desire to please and be pleased

by contact or association with other humans, into a lust for the possession of

manufactured objects.

13. This diversion of energies into the acquisition of material objects has had the

cumulative effect of cutting us off from each other as well as from our fellow

animals and plants with whom we evolved.

14.In our efforts to build robots more and more like ourselves we have not

noticed how robotic we ourselves have become. With disastrous results.”

(David Dobereiner, 08-04-2014)


The Honeybee, the Hive  and Bees in General as Useful Philosophical Metaphors: a 6-month discussion series at the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society,  July-Dec 2013


 A brief, two-page summary of all six meetings and round-table discussions:

In discussion one, we soared high amongst the cosmic clouds of metaphysical and religious speculation with Leo Tolstoy’s  panegyric , in War and Peace, to the natural interrelatedness and awesome mystery of all life and history as well as Rudolf Steiner’s powerful sermon in his first, 1923, “scientifically spiritual”  lecture on Bees, that the chastity of the female worker bees in the honeybee hive is a glorious  demonstration of the cosmic working out of love and soul and that, when we humans eat honey, we are partaking of vital restorative spiritual and organic health chemistry. Naturally (?*), there was much sceptical reaction to such Anthroposophical certainty.

The Hive:The Story of the Honeybee and Us (John Murray, 2004) by the wonderfully and aptly named Bee Wilson, brought us firmly down to earth by questioning the basic assumption throughout man’s history of imputing a sacred status to the honeybee by virtue of its apparent chastity and by its prolific production of seemingly miraculous honey—the gift of the Gods to man. In particular, the very notion of “natural” was philosophically highlighted and questioned and this would prove a rich vein of discussion over the ensuing five discussions. It was all most curious and often somewhat salacious!


In August, our numbers had been swelled by the addition of the NPS regular group, Philosophical Explorations, led by Jonathan Kingham, and we bravely tackled metaphysics/ontology, art and aesthetics, spirituality, Rudolf Steiner, Joseph Beuys and bees! We also attempted to define, via Professor Joad’s seminal 1944 Teach-Yourself series book, Philosophy, exactly what might be meant by both metaphysics and aesthetics—an often-neglected but highly important subdivision of the former. This, inevitably, led on to the related question of ontology and we were soon engaged by the question of whether there were any truths applicable to all existing things. The fundamental duality that Plato uncomfortably bequeathed to philosophy—and that was to so occupy and vex our later attention in the following months—between ultimate reality and ideal Forms, in contrast to familiar, natural and inferior daily phenomena–quickly arose. This defined the template for our consideration of art and aesthetics, both traditionally conceived via Plato’s Theory of Imitative or Mimetic Art, and the postmodern avant-garde art movement. I cited the recently deceased Arthur C. Danto’s 1964 influential essays in this regard, and I also tried to show, via articles and exhibition photographs, how much the artwork and polemical philosophy of the performance and sculpture artist, Joseph Beuys, reflected both this conceptual advance but also referenced powerfully and consciously Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy theories.

This topic proved a most fertile one and we canvassed, in rapid succession: Kant’s view of the inaccessible noumenal;  Schopenhauer’s challenge to this and of art as enabling temporary but fleeting relief from suffering and pessimism; Kierkegaard’s notion of outside (divine?) inspiration of all art creation (thus downgrading the avant-gardists declaration of self-authorship); and Steiner’s cogent and powerful prediction of ecological disaster facing honeybee should man ever over-mechanically and instrumentally interfere in natural beekeeping—as it seems he now has, with a vengeance. However, the last word and welcome relief was wittily provided by Malcolm and his excellent final question to us all: “What is in the eye of the bee-holder? “Beauty!”

In September, we concentrated on “Plato, Poetry, Poison and Patriarchy” and the Ancient Greek tradition of lyrical and dramatic poetry as constituting sweet and glorious articulation or “honey-voiced” inspiration. In some detail, I demonstrated just how much Plato challenged and reversed this tradition in The Republic, thereby demoting all poetry as being indulgent and feckless. Plato thus banned it–as being unworthy– from his proposed utopia.

In so considering, we also spent much time discussing the misogyny expressed by all such ancient poets, including both Plato and Aristotle, who formed their harsh views of women by erroneously and egregiously equating them to their pre-scientific notions of the work and social habits—and sexual hierarchy–of the beehive. Such discussion raised many an eyebrow as I read out one particularly damning “satire” by the ancient poet Semonides—and not all of these were female, by any means! Joel, however, thought I was over-emphasising such lyrical misogyny and rather overlooking the literary satirising.

We concluded a highly involved and entertaining group discussion with my introducing the concept of epistemology, archiving, and bees, via documents from a special 2005 exhibition entitled The Revolt of the Bees: Wherein the Future of the Paper-Hive is Declared, held at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania, further detailed analysis of which, however, had to be postponed to a later session.

We then picked up on this epistemological thread during October’s fascinating group discussion on bees and consciousness and intelligence—a topic which, and certainly as our wide-ranging and deep discussion duly showed, is quite impossible to justly summarise (see that month’s material and summary on the discussion blog pull-down menu).

Nevertheless, and briefly, our concern was with the possibility—or rather, otherwise—of a person being able to successfully inhabit another organism’s body and thereby live, as Merlin says in T.H White’s The Sword in the Stone, in two planes at the same time. We also concerned ourselves with the latest scientific evidence revealing how honeybees use their entirely different sensory and biological equipment to negotiate their environment successfully, and thus appear to us to demonstrate a certain degree or dimension of thinking, learning and, possibly, “consciousness”.  Such differing olfactory honeybee skills, for example, were being currently utilised both for bomb-sniffing operations and medical disease detection kits.

However, any notion of a shared perception with humanity was quite contradicted by the famous and startling experiments [1949 and after] on bees by Karl von Frisch–especially in connection with their mutual communications via their dancing routines and chemical exchanges.

A more recent (1997) article by Michael Tye, “The Problem of Simple Minds: Is There Anything It Is Like To Be A Honey Bee?” plus the seminal 1974 philosophical article Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To be A Bat?” were heavily drawn upon in the discussion—but I also introduced, as contrast, a recent Australian radio discussion, based on the thoughts of Aristotle concerning the soul, on whether plants think or not. Boris, our pet Venus Fly-Trap plant that we had brought along for Show-and-Tell, was a huge–but mute–help in this regard.

We also returned to another lecture by Rudolf Steiner in his 1923 “Bees” series, to illustrate the striking, non-human visual perception of bees, in relation to ultra-violet and infra-ray lightwaves and their varying non-human colour identifications.

Finally, I also briefly mentioned a recent and highly informative article, entitled “Learning and Memory in Bees” by Randolf Menzel and Jochen Erber, which elucidates the neural basis of the programmed behaviour of bees, thereby enabling them to learn quickly and to remember for long periods the colour and the odour of flowers that yield them nectar or pollen. Such neural processes, remarkably, it seems, are quite similar to that used by us all. Nevertheless, I posed: without their possessing verbal language, can we ever really know them?

Unfortunately, there was not sufficient time at the end to discuss this vital role in consciousness and mind-body problems of verbal language; nor were we, as things turned out, ever able to return to this fascinating subject via the French psychologist, Lacan, as originally hoped and envisioned by Jack.

The final two sessions in November and December on bees and economics and ethics and socio—political systems, including utopias, consisted of much debate over whether or not cooperation serves Darwin’s theory of evolution better than the usual interpretation of competition and the survival of the fittest mantra. I introduced a global and entomologically scientific viewpoint on the vast number of other species of bees that are not honeybees and are, in fact, solitary–and thus in no way cooperatively social.

I also took pains to explain the genetic explanation, by W.D.Hammond, concerning the peculiar role played by haplo-diploidy honeybee reproductive behaviour in ensuring evolutionary advantages—none of which can, however, be seen as “altruistic” or “self-sacrificing”. 

I wrapped up the entire series by unequivocably expressing the view that modern scientific discoveries have indicated the following: that (a) the honeybee—historical, mythical, and folkloric imaginative speculation aside—is no useful guide whatsoever as a metaphor for philosophy; that (b) all anthropomorphic allusions to honeybees are false; and that last, but certainly not least, (c) the assumed historical and philosophical correspondence and analogy between so-called “nature” in bees and mankind is entirely unjustified.


Hi everybody! And so we come to the last–and rather sad–summary of our recent discussions at the Lit & Phil on the honeybee and bees in general. I have enjoyed our sessions immensely and learnt so much from my personal research but much much more from our general face to face conversational encounters. I trust–and know– that the six-month mini-series was very beneficial and illuminating also to many other attendees, both regular and occasional. Thank you all so very much for making it such a stimulating and pedagogic success!

I do not know, exactly, if this website was equally accessible and useful for people but I do very much hope so and can only guarantee that it will remain up and open permanently for any of you, who remain interested in philosophy and the bees, to use how and when you like! Please feel free to make any constructive comments you wish, including, above all, any technical improvements that could help to make the site run better and easier.

The honeybee, hive, and human society: economic and political:

Our last two discussions were respectively entitled “Language, Ethics, and Economics” (9th November) and ” Politics and Social Theory” (14th December) and traversed vast areas of myth, speculation, and entomological fact! The honeybee and the hive have served–both historically and philosophically–as metaphors for a kaleidoscopic array of social, economic, and political concepts, descriptions, and utopian hopes. This material can, of course, be approached from numerous angles and positions but I thought a very useful one to adopt for the November meeting was Bernard Mandeville’s controversial early eighteenth-century economic and moral polemical poem, The Grumbling Hive: or Knaves Turn’d Honest which very quickly expanded into a comprehensive and much reprinted book of additional and copious remarks and essays, under the title of The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices , Public Benefits. (see the relevant monthly blog pages for more textual information and analyses).

The titles and subtitles of this important work, in particular, reveal the approach taken and the reasons for the ensuing and longlived uproar from moralists, clergymen, philosophers and economists.

Very simply, Mandeville’s thesis was that when a hive of bees–and by extension, human society–decides that virtue, benevolence and honesty must and should prevail in all cases over vice and passionate behaviour, then commercial and prosperous society will collapse into a stationary and simple economy of few bees and greatly reduced production.

Such relentless satire and scepticism offended both the economic mercantilists– who theoretically believed in the preference and utility of amassing bullion and money via exports rather than imports; that all luxury imports must thus be a drain on home resources as well as finance, and should therefore be strongly (hypocritically?) discouraged–but also two contrasting moralist camps of the time.

These were: one, severe and ascetic moral discipline and the pursuit of virtue known as moral rigorism; and two, the third Lord Shaftsbury’s popular and celebrated doctrine of natural benevolence which posited that man is naturally altruistic and well-intentioned, even virtuous, just as long as reason is permitted to check anti-social tendencies and passions. The latter camp was known, unsurprisingly, as benevolism.

As expected, Mandeville’s pre-Freudian stress on the passions (he was a medical specialist of nervous disorders) and vices, as constituting the fundamental engine of economic prosperity and the catalyst for the creation of overall social and political wellbeing, still causes concern and dissent today, as it did then. And our group discussion proved to be no exception!

Nevertheless, philosophical relativism in this current secular postmodernist period has certainly seemed to produce more tolerance and flexibility of thinking–although not exclusively so when one translates Mandeville’s social and economic descriptions into modern consumer capitalism and liberal traditionalism.

For example, I also mentioned, in passing, Machiavelli’s legacy of political pragmatism, as, in my opinion, this remains clearly evident in the present climate of neoliberalism, privatisation, and corporate economic practices. These approaches, like Machiavelli’s, tend to stress authority, order and stability over morality, social justice, and thus meaningful “free” choice.

Due mainly to Jack Grassby’s absence from these two final group discussions arising from illness–from which we are happy to say he has since made a full recovery–we did not get around to further discussing the crucual role of verbal language in communication and epistemology–or rather, in the case of the bees, its absence. (Lacan will, alas, have to wait another time!)

Honeybees, of course–as we discovered in the earlier discussion on consciousness and intelligence, do communicate with each other, and in a highly variegated and sophisticated manner, via chemical pheromones, tactile and kinetic movements, and elecro-magnetic sensitivities, etc. Karl Von Frisch’s pioneering and classic experimentations in these respects–particularly the phenomenon of the “circular” and “waggle” dances that honeybees returning from foraging make in order to very accurately inform their companions as to the exact geographical whereabouts of the choicest nectar-bearing plants and flowers–were once again discussed briefly. (see the discussion material in month three)

In our final and sixth meeting and discussion, however, I had decided that it would be a good idea–for a sense of balance and completeness–to talk about bees generally and not just the honeybee which had monopolised our attentions hitherto:

In an incredibly informative and highly colourful 1991 book, Bees of the World by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw, two contemporary research entomologists, the following two brief but startling statements are made: “There are at least 20,000 described species of bee and the vast majority of these are solitary. That is, each nest is the work of a single female working alone. There is no caste or cooperating workers and each female constructs her nest and provisions it with pollen and honey without the help of others.” (page 34)

This opened up a veritable box or worms as the stimulating but controversial subject of the evolutionary role played by cooperation as compared to competition in the insect world–and by extension–the entire animal world–was discussed in earnest. I pointed out that the Russian anarchist anthropologist, Prince Kropotkin’s famous turn-of-the-century thesis of “Mutual Aid” was, whatever might be its overall merits, clearly deficient in exclusively–and extremely briefly–discussing the honeybee, in indicating the value of social and altruistic cooperation. David Dobereiner hotly disputed this but, alas, weakened his otherwise impressive thesis, by choosing only to argue by analagous appeal to the examples of higher animals and not to insects or bees.


“In the case of worker honeybees and some worker ants, the workers are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the well-being of the colony. How can a gene for such altruism be passed on to future generations via a non-reproductive caste?

These questions posed a real dilemma for Charles Darwin. With his typical candour, he recognised that the social Hymenoptera might well subvert his theory of evolution by means of natural selection operating on variable, but inherited characters. In the Origin of Species he confronted this dilemma and concluded that the social insects were a special case, with natural selection operating on the colony as a whole rather than on individuals.

Social behaviour has evolved 12 times in the insects, 11 of then in the Hymenoptera. There must be some quality about the ants, wasps and bees which predisposes them to develop sociality. In 1964, the British biologist W.D.Hamilton came up with a theory which satisfactorily explains the evolution of social behaviour or ‘altruism’ in this group.” (Bees of the World, 109-110)

Now, in view of the heat that this debate continues to generate–with all its casual comparisons to T.H.Huxleyan interpretations of the “survival of the fittest”, and the naked and violent agression between both individuals and species, and, lastly (it must be admitted also), Hobbesian notions of “red in tooth and claw” Social Darwinianism, here is the detailed argument in full:

“Since the nineteenth century, it had been known that in bees and wasps, females are derived from fertilised eggs and males are derived from unfertilised eggs. We now know that the fertilization of an egg is under the conscious control of the female. To fertilize an egg, she releases sperm from the spermatheca as the egg passes down the oviduct. By withholding sperm, she lays an egg destined to become a male. It follows that a female receives genetic material from both her father, via the sperm, and from her mother, via the egg. She therefore has the normal or ‘diploid’ number of chromosomes. By contrast, a male receives genetic material only from his mother. He has a single, maternal grandfather, but no father. In fact he has half the normal number of chromosomes and is said to be ‘haploid’.

It was Hamilton’s great insight to recognise the consequences of this, the haplo-diploid method of sex determination and how they affect the likelihood of sociality evolving in the Hymenoptera. And how, in fact, the apparently ‘selfless’ behaviour of workers has nothing to do with altruism, but rather a lot to do with the way haplo-diploidy distorts the genetic relationships between females in a family group.

Because a male bee is haploid, all his sperm are gentically identical. If a female mates only once, then all her female offspring will receive an identical set of genes from their father. But, because the mother is diploid, her daughters have in common only one half of the maternal genes.

If we now add up the genes received by a female bee from her father and mother, we can see that the hymenopteran sisters have a very special relationship. They share, on average, 75 per cent of their genes by common descent, i.e., 50 per cent from the father and 25 per cent from their mother. Thus, when a female bee or wasp has daughters, she passes on only 50 per cent of her genes to the next generation. But if she gives up reproduction and helps to rear sisters, some of which will become reproductive queens, then in so doing, she helps to pass on, via her sister, a set of genes which are, on average, 75 per cent identical to her own. Because the shared genes are identical, it does not matter whether they are in the female’s own eggs or in those of her younger sisters. By being a worker, she reproduces by proxy, the pay-off being the extra 25 per cent of genes which are perpetuated in this way.

This is the so-called theory of ‘kin selection’ and it offers the most elegant explanation for the evolution and maintenance of sociality in the Hymenoptera, especially the highly social (eusocial) forms such as the honeybees and stingless bees . . . It also solves Darwin’s dilemma and gives us an important new insight into social behaviour in bees, wasps and ants: far from being a selfless altruist, the worker hymenopteran is, or rather its genes are, utterly selfish.” (110-111).

This conclusion no doubt, pleased Richard Dawkins, who wrote, in 1976, the much-disputed The Selfish Gene.

The obvious question immediately arises that if being social is so genetically advantageous, why are not all bees social? There are many intriguing possibilities and explanations for this relating to changes of environment and so forth, but this is not the place to consider them, unfortunately. Moreover, it remains imprudent to draw general conclusions about the evolution of sociality in bees based only on a few, well-studied examples, for only the honeybee has been, so far, extensively studied and researched due mainly to its great usefulness to man’s economy.

A tentative conclusion, however, can be reached that “Each species has its own unique evolutionary history and its level of sociality (or lack of it) is more reasonably thought of as being the optimum for that species, at this point in its history.”(109)

We wrapped up this lively meeting with my briefly describing the 1828 and highly influential fable by John Minter Morgan entitled “Revolt of the Bees” which is set in Lanark and Loch Lomond in Scotland and which, in sharp contrast to Mandeville’s cynical fable, imagines honeybees deciding to become competitively individualistic and entrepreneural in their foraging and production of honey– all with dire results.

The conclusion of the author from this long poetic, and much annotated, prose tale, is that cooperation on Robert Owen-like industrial community lines is ultimately the most natural and beneficial path for bees–and, of course, by extension, mankind to follow. It is thus a powerful polemic and morality piece against classical economics and rugged industrial capitalism which successfully creates vast wealth but utterly fails to distribute this equally or justly. The key word, however, is “natural” which, of course, begs all the problematic anthropocentric philosophical questions– as we have seen throughout the course.

This was an apt and satisfying place to conclude this discussion and I finally also concluded the entire series by rhetorically asking the question: is, therefore, the honeybee, via its vast folk, mythical and scientific history, a relevant and useful metaphor for philosophy? I sadly answered that six months detailed investigation has clearly indicated that it is not. Not at all. Jonathan, sitting opposite me, nodded affirmatively–and vigorously. But: more to the point, what do YOU think?

Hemlockian 34 (Peter Tooth)

View the ‘Bee Media’ page

Side view of bee swarm
Photos and video of a bee swarm spotted near Beamish have been added to the new ‘Bee Media’ page. The images, courtesy of Rob Basow, are fascinating: “You can really see, by looking at the escaping swarm of bees, an image of the human soul flying away from the body. Oh gentlemen, this is a grand sight to behold! (Rudolf Steiner, Bees, trans. by Thomas Braatz, Anthroposphic Press, 1998, 156)
Click here to go to the new page.


[Finally updated as of 21 March 2014]

Hello all:
Documents and links have now been comprehensively added to this site, including complete summaries of all six group discussions.

Please check under ‘For discussion: Bees and…

Introduction and Overview
Art and Spirituality
Poetry, Plato, Poison (and Patriarchy!)
Consciousness and Intelligence
Language, Ethics and Economics
Politics and Social Theory

Please join any of the discussions via this general post or, better, those under the specific monthly topics (listed above) on the pull-down menu called “Blog Pages for Comments: Bees and . . .” (button four). I will still read all blogs, I promise!

Re the updates referred to above, the blogs, links and articles will remain permanently on the website as reference material. Warning: there is a lot of great material available (!) so please read at your leisure. Thanks for all the fish!

–Peter Tooth (Hemlockian34)