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)