A Few Thoughts on Hives and Individuality

I remember watching an episode of the series COSMOS, the new one by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and it was fascinating to see how bees communicate. Karl Von Frisch in 1953 found that the direction of the bee, and number of times it waggles during a bee “dance”, indicates the direction and distance of an object the bee observed. It was more intriguing to see that bees, despite having hierarchal order, have a true democratic system for finding a new suitable location for nests (it is not representational democracy). According to the episode, once a bee finds a suitable location, it does the bee “dance” to try and convince its fellow bees of its validity; this process continues with every returning bee from its peregrination until all of bees are in agreement of the final location. I wonder, does this fact change what we think of as “hive” mentality, and is this “democratic” process observed in other organisms that live in hives, or colonies?

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I am not sure if what you report is more like standard democracy or full consensus, perhaps performed sequentially. But I think I understand your point, or perhaps one of your points…

I find it striking that even biological cells are able to sense their numbers and respond differently to identical events depending on their absolute number or their density – which was initially termed “a community effect in animal development”. A minimum number of cells is required for muscle induction, or for stem cells to decide between generating tissues along gradients or differentiating as a homogeneous block , etc.

Even unicellular pathogens, and even viruses, as quite recently shown, can do quite the same, which is called “quorum sensing”, when they decide for example if they will try to kill or hide.

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Not so much democracy as anarchy, in the true philosophical sense, not the twisted way the media use the term. Mikhail Bakunin would have liked those bees.

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The described behaviour does not qualify as a sign of “Individuality”, in my opinion. It is strictly cause-and-effect.
Recommended reading, although rather heavy and mostly about ants, the book: The Superorganism, by B. Hölldobler & E.O. Wilson.

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In order to accept your premise(s) it would be necessary to believe that bees are (a) aware of what they are doing and (b) able to choose behaviour other than what they exhibit in any given interaction. The evidence for both is thin. Although I don’t blindly accept the dogma I was taught in university about human mental faculties being unique I do believe that seeing human qualities in all animal behaviour is a mistake. The concept of democracy has at it’s core the belief that people can make choices based on argument and evidence. The same is true of theoretical anarchy, whether as espoused by Bakunin or in other formulations.

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I agree with you. As odole says, organisms can learn, but I doubt if the bee dance is a learned behaviour, or has been modified in individual bees. Remove the queen from the hive and the pheromone cues that direct the individuals in the hive are gone. I’m not sure if the dancing stops, but some of the bees (all female) will lay sterile eggs. I think humans try to read both too much and too little into invertebrate behaviour. We just do not have a clue about how non self aware organisms work. They do what works, and what they are capable of doing. Huge wasp nests, except for the queen, die every winter. It seems like a waste of resources to us, so we often look for meaning in it, but bottom line is that’s how that species lives.
It should also be remembered that the term ‘Hive Mind’ is a human metaphor, and does not capture the reality of a true hive.

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