Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bee's Knees: The Consolation of Social Physiology

A stirring passage about bees has been buzzing in my brain since I gleaned it at breakfast on Tuesday. The source is May Berenbaum’s review of two books about the social organization of ants and bees (TLS, 1.28.2011). Apparently, the big deal in the world of bees, as in that of humans, is when an over­populated hive spawns a colonizing  swarm of bees who decide to strike out on their own and leave in search of a site to establish its new hive (think Mayflower).

As this swarm dangles form some tree limb, its special scout bees check out the territory. When they return, they communicate their finding to the swarm in a special dance. Here’s the "buzzing" passage:

One point Seeley makes in his book is that scouts never blindly copy each other; each scout dances only to promote a site that she has inspected herself. Moreover, the intensity of promoting the site naturally decays over time – and individual scout will advocate for a site only for a limited amount of time and then will retire and rest. Both of these behaviours minimize the perpetuation of errors.

What stung me was the precision with which this pattern fits what I know about the creative types among us humans. Pindar once likened the poet, who gathers inspiration from other poets, to a bee collecting pollen from different flowers to make his own honey ("Persephone's bees" of Osip Mandelstam). Leo Tolstoy knew a thing or two about bees, and there is an ironic, down-to-earth echo of the Pindaric simile in Tolstoy's description of scholars: people who copy passages from many books by other authors into one notebook and then publish it as their own. This impressive pedigree notwithstanding, Seeley’s description rings louder and deeper still.

How many scout bees do you know among your friends, how many times have you seen them dance their unique dance to promote a site they discovered in their imagination? How much you admired their intensity only to register with sadness that it lasted “only for a limited amount of time” - before they shuffled off to “retire and rest.” But what a comfort it is to think that there is a higher purpose to all of this odd and, in the light of common sense, thankless behavior.

So next time your inspiration makes you think of yourself as bee's knees and you throw yourself into a dance, do not despair if the audience is not moved. Even as your inner conviction decays over time and you "retire and rest," be assured: you have minimized the perpetuation of errors!

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