Picture of Janet



Reading Time: 6 minutes

“That buzzing-noise means something. If there’s a buzzing noise, somebody’s making a buzzing-noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing-noise that I know of is because you’re a bee and the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey and the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it. ~~ Winnie the Pooh

The young girl, lay in bed, one side of her mattress up against the wall. There were always ants in the old brown house in Arkansas. So many that when her mother made a cake or a pie, which she was wont to do often to entice her husband to eat something, they would have to create a water moat out of a saucer underneath the cake and pie stand. That way the ants weren’t able to access the sweets, unless they learned and sacrificed to make an ant bridge. Over time, the saucer moats had to get wider…

The young girl didn’t exactly hate the ants. They were fascinating.  She certainly found ant carcass dusted dessert disgusting but the ants ability to rapidly locate any food not moat-protected was incredible.

This caused her to run the following experiment.

Laying in bed, listening to her mother get her dad ready for the midnight shift, the ants began their nocturnal journey, a meandering path along one wall, turning the corner onto the common wall between where she slept and the kitchen. Every ant followed the exact same meandering path. She waited until one ant traveling alone offered her opportunity and then with her thumb, smashed the tiny little insect, feeling it’s body crunch under the pressure. She made sure to deposit the ant body on the floor between the bed and the wall. It felt a bit like a tiny little booger. Seconds later, another ant hurrying along the invisible path, encountering the exact spot of the demise of her sister, abruptly stopped, backed up, wiggled its antennas and circled around. The ant experiment had a number of protocols over a certain number of months. Insomnia allowing for a lot of creativity, the young girl deduced one thing at the end, one thing for certain. Ants communicated. She felt a little bit guilty about killing them. Only a little bit though.

Late she would learn that ants were ‘eusocial’. An interesting Greek word ( from the Greek εὖ eu meaning “good”), it indicated that if you looked at animals, the highest level of social development observed would be when animals cooperate to care for babies, have overlapping generations of adults to do the caring, and divisions of labor of who gets to make the babies and who does all of the other work and not make babies. Makes for a systems of castes… But eusociality is different from all other social systems because individuals of at least one caste usually lose the ability to perform at least one behavior characteristic of individuals in another caste.

It put a different spin on the whole ant killing on the wall experiment.

By the way, that last characteristic, should prohibit the human animal being classified as eusocial.

After the girl’s years of squashing ants at night came and went, her beloved brother six years younger, inherently more rebellious than she, began spending some of his considerable intellectual energy and teenage angst down the street from their brown house, at the home of Ira Golden.

Now Ira was an oddity. The girl knew very little about him. The one thing she did know. A sort of caste system was at work on their street of mostly blue collar, low income, working class families. And Ira and his kin, well, they weren’t in the top caste. (Actually neither was the girl’s family) The reason? What put them in the caste? Summed up, it was simply that they acted different.

Truth was that all of the families on the street acted different, in one or another. It was just that some of the acting was more acceptable than others. Social dynamics in human communities are complicated. When you get people together, individual choices and interactions begin to create an aggregate behavior, with its own set of checks and balances that will dictate for a period of time what is acceptable in that community and what isn’t. It can be propagated by lots of things, such as religion or politics, but just like high school, its not always clear that every social dynamic that evolves in a community has an understandable logic. Or produces constructive results.

So Ira, who rarely if ever covered his wiry, thin upper torso in anything other than a winter down coat even in the summer, the underarms and sleeves stained with years of sweat, taught a young, strapping, thoughtful teenager about the eusocial behavior of honey bees.

He almost certainly never used that word.

He did however understand how a hundred hives worked and the necessary role that each member of the hive provided.

He also found his place. In a place where the society he lived in might have said he didn’t have one.

Ira made a difference. Yep, Ira truly did.

When the girl grew up, she thought a lot about how people behave. She spent time reminiscing about the street she grew up on. Through the good and the bad of early years and those after, she carried what she had learned to her three sons. She taught them how each of us have our role, our purpose in this life. As she got even older, she thought more and more about the wisdom of accepting difference, appreciating what it really means in practice to know that diversity makes the world go around. She’d always talked to God, but now she did it a lot. And in her recurring conversations, He loves to remind her. He loves everyone. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E.

The other day, while reading along on a night when she could not sleep, her squishing ants experiments still behind her, a science report caught the old girl’s eye.

Study Finds Parallels Between Unresponsive Honey Bees and Human Autism


As it turns out, even in the simple beauty and social complexity of a bee hive, where death and birth are just part of making honey to keep bees in the future making honey, there are a small number of bees that don’t act like their sisters. Rather than doing what honey bees mostly do, ie falling into the highly-engaged to moderately-engaged camp of workers fulfilling their honey bee destinies, there are some who appear oblivious to the social norm. Actually, they fail to respond to much of anything that ought to make a honey bee go “yeah”. Having observed a similar lack of sociability in autistic individuals, the scientists wondered if there was anything similar molecular-wise going on between the two organisms. And what do you know. With a high probability, there were a suite of genes that were regulated differently yet similarly in humans with autism and bees who didn’t know how to socialize in the hive. Now don’t get me wrong. This research isn’t saying much more than what I just said. Stretch the results as far as it allows you to contemplate that life on earth uses a similar toolbox of molecular tools, whether you are a honey bee or a human and we have deep roots from life long ago.

But then maybe it lets you think this: sociability is a trait that multiple organisms on our planet make use of. It insures a certain kind of success. But it appears that the plan also includes those that don’t quite fit in. Why? What good is a bee that doesn’t know how to care for her queen, that just exist until they don’t? Perhaps science will one day help us to understand how that happens. For now the why, though, maybe we look to humanity. For certain, its those differences in humans that make for a much more interesting world. We definitely aren’t honey bees, and although we carry the same toolbox, we are at our hearts a very diverse population, much more so than our social dynamics might hope to dictate. No matter what the social norms of the day you are living in tell you, its every single individual around you, every single one that God has a plan for, that you’d do well to count precious. You never know what their contribution is to bee. I mean be.


References, in case you want more.

Photo credit: Julie McMahon

Small hive beetles… I hate ’em.

The non-native, bees are domesticated, commentary

The best all around bee movie I’ve seen so far…

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