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Learning From Bees [Agriculture
Posted on January 30, 2018 @ 08:02:00 PM by Paul Meagher

I am 2 chapters into a book by Bernd Heinrich called Bumblebee Economics (1979).

bumble bee economics book cover

I knew Bernd from some of his other popular science books but was curious about what the concept of Bumblebee Economics might consist of. Bernd invokes a combination of economic, energetic, and societal factors to explain why, for example, a colony splits to form two colonies. When a colony reaches a certain size, the bees can become more aggressive with each other. The area around the colony can become too large to be efficiently foraged from one location or it may not have sufficient nectar sources. The objective of the queen is to reproduce her lineage so starting a new colony is generally part of the yearly mission. Factors such as these eventually lead a colony to the decision to start a new colony.

This may be an overly complex analysis of the factors driving the decision to start a new colony. Perhaps some chemical compound in the colony hits a certain concentration and this signals that it is time to split up the colony. In the absence of said chemical compound, however, you might have to resort to more complex socio-economic factors to explain why things are as they are in bumblebee land. Hence the need for an economic type analysis of bumblebee behavior.

If bumblebees can be said to have what amounts to an economy, then what is the currency? Pollen is necessary for reproduction of the colony and the reproduction of flowing plants. Nectar is used for energy and is stored in the form of honey after it is regurgitated from their honey gut. Perhaps bubblebees have two currencies, pollen and nectar, that are traded for different purposes. You might be able to construct a measure of colony growth by measuring the amount of pollen stored and traded among plants or the amount of nectar consumed and stored as honey by the colony and its descendants.

Natural economics deals with how economies worked before the invention of money, or when the use of money was a negligible part of the economy. Perhaps thinking about pollen and nectar as currencies is misleading because bees live in a natural economy rather than the artificial economies that humans create in which money is central. It is nevertheless interesting to think about the role of pollen and nectar in the bumblebee economy and the extent to which they might be considered units of trade.

Bumblebees are social insects that join together into colonies. A colony might be equated with a franchise business model where the goal is to create new instances of itself in order to exploit new niches.

Bumblebees are part of a network consisting of flowering plants that they get energy from and help to reproduce. Different varieties of birds consume the seasonal fruit set of the pollinated plants. These birds also help to propagate plants through the undigested seeds they release. The macro-economic system of bumblebees is affected by the abundance of flowering plants and birds in their ecosystem. Each actor in this network plays a critical role and if one is harmed or enhanced the others are likely to be harmed and enhanced as well.

Comparative economics studies "different systems of economic organization, such as capitalism, socialism, feudalism and the mixed economy". If bee behavior can be explained from an economic point of view perhaps we can add bee economics to the list of economic organizations that human economic organizations could be compared to. Why would we want to? It might allow us to come up with new ideas about how economies and firms could be organized.

Biomimetics or biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. You can visit the examples section of biomimicry.org to read about such nature-inspired solutions. You could also read the book Honeybee Democracy to understand how honeybees collectively decide on where to locate their colony.

The author argues that honeybees provide a useful model (or reminder) of how democracies should be organized. You could also study bumblebee anatomy or physiology for ideas about how to design an engine or a new type of drone aircraft. Bumblebees anatomy and physiology is particularly interesting because bumblebees are active in colder temperatures that most other insects.

Deduction doesn't create anything new. You work from existing ideas, apply logic rules, and arrive at new ideas that were already implied by your existing ideas. Analogy is therefore necessary to arrive at new ideas. Taking an existing system and comparing it to another system can help you to think about the second system in new ways. If bees can be said to have an economy, a language, and democracy then they might offer us opportunities to think differently about economic organization, language, and democratic institutions. This means that we can study bees not simply because they are fascinating creatures but also because of the ideas they might inspire about how to solve complex human problems.

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