Winter is a quiet season for beekeepers, so what better time to make yourself a steaming mug of cocoa and settle down to two great podcasts about bees!
The first podcast is a public discussion held at LSE by the Forum for European Philosophy, titled Hive Minds: Collective Intelligence in Humans and Other Animals. The panelists are Christian List (philosopher, LSE), Elli Leadbeater (social insect biologist, Royal Holloway), and Larissa Conradt (evolutionary theorist, Max Planck Institute for Human Development).
Leadbeater opens the discussion brilliantly, asking us to picture a swarm of honey bees who have just left a hive. So now they are clustering on a tree branch, with about three days to find a new home before they run out of food. Scout bees fly off in all directions looking for nesting sites with certain desirable features – large but not too large, protected from the elements, free of ants, and so on. These bees fly back and report their findings through the famous waggle dance, and other scouts fly off to verify their findings. Gradually a consensus emerges. In this way, thousands of bees with no central decision-making authority prove to be surprisingly effective in choosing an optimal nest.
This paves the way to discuss broader questions, such as, is there collective intelligence in bees and other social insects? If so, what is the evidence for it, and what form does it take? Do we also find forms of collective intelligence in humans? And what can humans learn from bees about the best ways to make collective decisions? The discussion encompasses philosophical questions (the nature of intelligence), historical anecdotes (Galton’s ox) and current developments (Brexit, Donald Trump).
The second podcast (just 12 days left to listen!) is a BBC Radio 4 feature called Spirit of the Beehive. A lilting Nina Perry soundtrack (Oli Langford on violin) sets the tune for an exploration of vastly different worlds, including a Sussex University lab studying the waggle dance, a Parisian artist community called La Ruche (‘the beehive’), and a social enterprise in Hackney which is training disadvantaged youths in small-scale commercial beekeeping.
The narrative gently segues back and forth between these diverse domains, and while they all present a unique perspective on our relationship with bees, the part about the Hackney beekeepers is the most memorable. It has been suggested that urban beekeeping may be a ‘middle class guilt trip’, a form of ‘nostalgie de la boue – a French term for a kind of rustic-fancying inverted snobbery which literally means “nostalgia for the mud”.’ But hearing the Hackney youths describe their experience with beekeeping quickly dispels any such notion. Some of the interviews are really quite moving:
Starting September I’m going to be working with the bank called Nomura doing beekeeping, so it allows me to interact with various different people and see various different environments. It’s going to be an exciting experience. I’m going to be meeting people that work in a bank, just very high class. It makes you feel different…
Or another guy, after describing the gang violence and shootings that are a feature of everyday life:
The bees are more or less, apart from the… the um, the playground, are more or less the only things that are good around here. Like, en-enlightened… enlightenment, sorry.