To be or not to be (is that the question?)

So, imagine a community – let’s call it a colony – where your role is very clearly defined and well understood by all. There’s some comfort in that. Your leader is a woman (always has been and always will be) who makes the rules alone – this is not a democracy (never has been and never will be), so let’s call it a benevolent dictatorship. Over recent months the colony has grown in size – and to the leader – feels vibrant and healthy. There’s a real buzz about the place, she thinks.

Your role is determined by your sex – no surprise there – but probably not in the way you’d expect. Men have a pretty good time of it – they don’t do much other than fornicate – but evolution has dealt them a cruel hand as their life expectancy has shrunk in line with their contribution to the colony. They don’t develop any meaningful relationships and they dream of a liaison with their leader but even then, there’s a tragic aftermath.

Women do all of the work – no surprise there – but, perversely, they have elevated social standing as a result. They are constantly busy – cleaning, provisioning, looking after the young and of course, the leader. Although life in the colony is good, provisioning takes them well beyond the boundaries of the colony and this process has become increasingly hazardous.

With the colony’s population approaching 20,000 – the effective maximum –  the leader knows that it will soon be time for her to anoint her successor and leave to start a new colony. She’ll only leave when things are stable and there are sufficient supplies to keep them sustained in the event of bad weather or some other discontinuity. And then, disaster strikes. A member of the colony becomes infected with a virus for which there is no known cure. The disease spreads like wildfire. The authorities, once notified (a legal obligation), determine that the colony must be completely destroyed – by fire – to avoid the risk of contagion. The process takes a matter of hours.

Welcome to the world of the honeybee. A social structure that’s been in place for tens of thousands of years, seeing off all manner of predators, surviving Ice Ages – surviving pretty much everything until now. Mankind – yes, us – is the main threat to this invaluable species whose pollination activities keep things growing and we owe it to them to stop destroying their habitat and food sources as well as poisoning them with insecticides. It is only in recent years that bees have become increasingly prone to a growing number of new diseases – nobody knows why.

Honeybees produce wax, honey and venom and are the only insect species to provide us with a food source. Not only that, but bees can also teach us a series of important “life lessons”. These include:

  • Men are the problem
  • Women are the antidote
  • Female leaders are the way to go
  • Benevolent dictatorships are the only effective form of government

It’s clear that everything we do to change the environment can have a potentially negative impact – even if that is not obvious at the outset. Let’s hope we haven’t left it too late to rectify our mistakes. To bee or not to bee – that IS the question.

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