Walk along the Charles today, and you’ll find that spring is in full swing. The crocuses and daffodils are blooming. The geese are back in town. And if you stand still for a bit and watch the flowers, you may encounter a few pollinating insects buzzing along.
Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, is one such pollinator. Honeybees are not native to Boston, but these creatures have increasingly found homes in urban areas, as residents of cities around the world reconsider the kind of ecological company they keep.
In my final year as an undergraduate, I have decided to start keeping bees at my living group as a bizarre sort of parting gift. This week, pika (one of MIT’s six independent living groups) will welcome its first colony onto our property in Cambridgeport. The colony should be a snug fit for our yard, which is already an eclectic nesting ground for an assortment of critters. The hive will join the ranks of our half-dozen chickens, two cats, and modest garden.
I hope that members of the MIT community come visit to observe and learn from them, because the honeybee serves as a powerful reminder of the network of causality which has brought us into the present. Flowering plants, pollinating insects, and mammals all co-evolved together over the past few hundred million years.
Honeybees teach us that relatively simple agents, operating socially, can yield intricate, startling aggregate behaviors. Even during the harsh northeast winters (hopefully a distant, fading memory in your mind), a hive maintains a constant temperature of around 96 degrees Fahrenheit at its core. Via dancing, bees manage to communicate to each other the precise location of flowers for forage, which may be upwards of four miles away. And they somehow collectively compose homes out of wax secreted from their abdomens and arranged in hexagonal chambers.
Many beekeepers have characterized hives as living, breathing research labs-in-a-box. As scientists examine these creatures and seek to understand them — both at an individual level and as systems — we gain continual insight into ecological connections, social behavior. We also see how much we have left to learn about chemistry, epigenetic regulation, and topology, among many other fields.
Today our agricultural system is heavily dependent on the honeybee and its fellow pollinators. The USDA estimates that honeybees alone contribute to $15 billion in crop value each year. California’s almond crop (80 percent of the world’s almonds), for instance, is pollinated almost exclusively by honeybees. Unfortunately, the future of managed beehives is at risk.
We don’t know if pika’s hive will survive its first winter. When humanity started engaging in migratory beekeeping practices a few decades ago, it appears that we unintentionally helped the bacteria, viruses, and parasitic mites which kill bees to rapidly spread throughout the majority of the honeybee population.
A lot of the man-made issues I have noticed in my short time on Earth seem to stem from our ongoing model of capitalism and mass production, which has encouraged the homogenization of a formerly diverse system in order to manufacture goods and services while potentially undermining the system itself.
While our Institute triumphantly proclaims that technology is a key facet to improving the livelihood of the world and decreasing human suffering, I am more hesitant to agree. I respect how far our species has come in such a short time, but I am also disturbed by how powerful tools have allowed us to walk very quickly without having the slightest clue what we are even pacing toward. The implications of this so-called Anthropocene perplex me to no end.
In the past few years, I have begun to view humanity as a superorganism. Honeybees and other social insects, while distinct from us in so many regards, have nonetheless been a useful model for understanding aggregate entities. They demonstrate that certain individual-level behaviors, while seemingly irrational or even destructive when viewed at the level of solitary agents, may actually contribute to the survival of the organism when viewed as a collective.
I hope that we use our technical expertise to cultivate the further discovery and understanding of life and other phenomena on Earth; to study these creatures and continue to piece together the nature of the causal web which constitutes the present. I hope that our capacity to build tools to expand the mind and eyes manages to outgrow our drive to build tools to expand the hands. Mens et manus.
If you have thoughts pertaining to the current state of affairs with bees, or the agricultural system at large, or how technology may play a role in undoing some of the unexpected life-threatening side effects of our present situation on Earth, I would love to hear from you. Come to pika on a sunny day sometime, and witness the flow and rhythm of the bees.