Tim Flannery

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Buzz: The Na­ture and Ne­ces­sity of Bees by Thor Han­son

Un­der­bug: An Ob­ses­sive Tale of Ter­mites and Tech­nol­ogy by Lisa Mar­gonelli


The Na­ture and

Ne­ces­sity of Bees by Thor Han­son.

Ba­sic Books, 283 pp., $27.00


An Ob­ses­sive Tale of Ter­mites and Tech­nol­ogy by Lisa Mar­gonelli. Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can/Far­rar, Straus and Giroux,

303 pp., $27.00

Ac­cord­ing to Thor Han­son’s Buzz, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween bees and the hu­man lin­eage goes back three mil­lion years, to a time when our an­ces­tors shared the African sa­van­nah with a small, brown­ish, robin­sized bird—the first hon­eyguide. Honeyguides are very good at lo­cat­ing bee­hives, but they are un­able to break into them to feed on the bee lar­vae and beeswax they eat. So they re­cruit hu­mans to help, at­tract­ing them with a call and lead­ing them to the hive. In re­turn for the ser­vice, Africans leave a small gift of honey and wax: not enough that the bird is un­in­ter­ested in lo­cat­ing an­other hive, but suf­fi­cient to make it feel that its ef­forts have been worth­while. Honeyguides may have been crit­i­cal to our evo­lu­tion: to­day, honey con­trib­utes about 15 per­cent of the calo­ries con­sumed by the Hadza people—Africa’s last hunter-gath­er­ers—and be­cause brains run on glu­cose, honey lo­cated by honeyguides may have helped in­crease our brain size, and thus in­tel­li­gence. Bees evolved from wasp an­ces­tors around 100 mil­lion years ago. Most wasps are sleek car­ni­vores, but bees are flower-loving, long-haired, and of­ten so­cial vege­tar­i­ans (the branched hairs that cover their bod­ies trap pollen, which, along with nec­tar, is their prin­ci­pal source of food). Their shift to a veg­e­tar­ian diet had a pro­found ef­fect on the evo­lu­tion of flow­er­ing plants. If we want to know what a world with­out bees looks like, Han­son writes, we should visit the bee-less island of Juan Fernán­dez off the coast of Chile, where, de­spite var­ied veg­e­ta­tion, al­most all flow­ers are small, white, and in­con­spic­u­ous. But it is not just glo­ri­ously col­ored flow­ers that we owe to bees, for many of our crops rely on them for pol­li­na­tion. Both our world and our brains, it seems, have been pro­foundly shaped by bees.

There are around 20,000 bee species, clas­si­fied into seven fam­i­lies. The most fa­mil­iar are the apids, in­clud­ing bum­ble­bees, car­pen­ter bees, and hon­ey­bees. The most prim­i­tive bees, largely re­stricted to Aus­tralia, are clas­si­fied into two fam­i­lies that only ex­perts would rec­og­nize. Mining bees, which dig nest tun­nels nearly ten feet deep and in­habit arid re­gions, rep­re­sent an­other fam­ily; oil-col­lect­ing bees and a fam­ily in­clud­ing leaf­cut­ter bees and mason bees make up two more. Sweat bees com­prise the fi­nal group. In ad­di­tion to col­lect­ing pollen and nec­tar from flow­ers, they drink mam­mals’ sweat for its mois­ture and salts: as

thou­sands of tiny bee tongues lick deep in­side a per­son’s ears, nose, and other sen­si­tive parts, they can in­flict mad­den­ing tor­ture; if brushed away they de­liver a sting like an elec­tric shock. Around one fifth of all bee species are par­a­sites on other bees, prompt­ing some bee re­searchers to rec­og­nize par­a­sitism as one of the ma­jor evo­lu­tion­ary adap­ta­tions of the lin­eage. The par­a­sites sur­vive ei­ther by steal­ing honey or wax from other bees, or by trick­ing them into rais­ing their young, much like cuck­oos do with birds. And not all bees are so­cial: many are soli­tary or are flex­i­ble in their de­gree of so­cial­ity, depending on tem­per­a­ture or re­source availability.

For all their evo­lu­tion­ary di­ver­sity and be­hav­ioral flex­i­bil­ity, bees are in trou­ble. In the fall of 2006, hon­ey­bee hives across the US “started wink­ing out en masse,” Han­son writes. Ap­par­ently healthy bees that set out on for­ag­ing trips never re­turned, leav­ing be­hind ne­glected combs full of honey and broods that be­came in­fected with bac­te­ria and other pathogens. Named Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der (and col­lo­qui­ally “the Beep­oca­lypse”), the phe­nom­e­non trig­gered the biggest bee re­search pro­ject in his­tory. To date, no sin­gle cause has been iden­ti­fied, but sev­eral fac­tors, parsed by re­searchers as “the four Ps”—par­a­sites, poor nu­tri­tion, pes­ti­cides, and pathogens—have com­bined to make bees vul­ner­a­ble.

Franklin’s bum­ble­bee was once found in south­west­ern Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia, but it hasn’t been seen since 2006. Rob­bin Thorp, who ob­served the species be­fore its dis­ap­pear­ance, is em­ployed by the US For­est Ser­vice to search for sur­vivors. He ac­knowl­edges that his work may be fu­tile and

the species ex­tinct, the­o­riz­ing that it fell vic­tim to a pathogen known as Nosema bombi, which reached the US when bum­ble­bees raised in Bel­gium were im­ported to pol­li­nate toma­toes in green­houses. Nosema pre­vents male bum­ble­bees from hav­ing sex. As their bod­ies fill with Nosema spores they be­come so heavy that they can’t fly, and their ab­domens swell so much that they can’t touch a fe­male in the right spot to cop­u­late. “When that hap­pens, you’re done,” says re­search en­to­mol­o­gist Jamie Strange. “In a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions, it all falls apart.”

Among the most dam­ag­ing of par­a­sites to hon­ey­bees is the Var­roa mite, a vam­pire that de­bil­i­tates them by suck­ing their blood. Orig­i­nally from South­east Asia, it has in­fected bees ev­ery­where ex­cept Aus­tralia, leav­ing colonies vul­ner­a­ble to ad­verse weather and poor nu­tri­tion. In­ci­den­tally, we of­ten mis­un­der­stand what’s needed to keep a bee well fed. “People look across a park or a golf course and think it’s green and lush, but to a bee it’s like a desert or a pet­ri­fied for­est,” says one re­searcher. As agri­cul­ture in­ten­si­fies, even flow­er­ing weeds—an es­sen­tial part of a bee’s diet—are be­com­ing scarce.

It is well known that bees pol­li­nate many of our crops, yet some­how that knowl­edge co­ex­ists with a will­ing­ness to spend over $65 bil­lion per year on in­sec­ti­cides. These chem­i­cals are hav­ing a cat­a­strophic im­pact on them. Un­like in­sect pests, which quickly be­come im­mune to pes­ti­cides, bees re­main vul­ner­a­ble. This may be be­cause most pests have had to cope with plant de­fenses for mil­lions of years. But the plants want bees to visit their flow­ers, so they don’t chem­i­cally de­fend their nec­tar or pollen, leav­ing bees with no ex­pe­ri­ence of chem­i­cal de­fenses. As Han­son puts it, “For the crop eaters, pes­ti­cides amount to a fa­mil­iar—and usu­ally tem­po­rary—chem­i­cal set­back. For bees they’re just a poi­son.” Re­search has re­vealed the as­ton­ish­ing per­sis­tence of chem­i­cals, in­clud­ing pes­ti­cides, in the en­vi­ron­ment. Chem­i­cal analy­ses of pollen, honey, wax, and bees them­selves re­veal traces of 118 dif­fer­ent pes­ti­cides, some of which haven’t been used for decades. And the chem­i­cals syn­er­gize: some fungi­cides, for ex­am­ple, can make some in­sec­ti­cides 1,100 times more po­tent. China’s Maox­ian Val­ley, which has long been renowned for its ap­ple or­chards, of­fers a sober warning of what hap­pens when bees dis­ap­pear. Be­gin­ning in the 1990s, ex­ces­sive and reck­less pes­ti­cide use, com­bined with poor bee nu­tri­tion and a lack of nest­ing spa­ces, caused both hon­ey­bees and wild bees to van­ish. Faced with crop fail­ure, or­chardists em­ployed thou­sands of sea­sonal work­ers armed with long sticks topped with chicken feath­ers to pol­li­nate the ap­ple blos­soms. But even the most skilled worker could pol­li­nate no more than ten trees per day. Faced with ex­ces­sive costs, the in­dus­try col­lapsed, and to­day the only or­chards re­main­ing in the val­ley are a few ad­ja­cent to forests, from which wild bees can visit and pol­li­nate the blos­soms.

In the spring of 1868, when John Muir made his first visit to Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley, he was filled with won­der, de­scrib­ing it as “the best of all the bee-lands of the world”: “One smooth, con­tin­u­ous bed of hon­ey­bloom, so mar­vel­lously rich that, in walk­ing from one end of it to the other, a dis­tance of more than four hun­dred miles, your feet would press more than a hun­dred flow­ers at ev­ery step.” To­day the great bee pas­ture is gone, and in its place is a vast plan­ta­tion where al­mond trees grow, sup­ply­ing 81 per­cent of the world’s crop. For three weeks of the year, al­mond blos­soms of­fer bees plenty to eat, but be­cause al­mond trees must grow on bare ground if the crop is to be me­chan­i­cally har­vested, for forty­nine weeks of the year the plan­ta­tions are bee deserts.

Like the ap­ple grow­ers in the Maox­ian Val­ley, Cal­i­for­nia’s al­mond grow­ers faced a cri­sis as bees de­clined. Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der was mak­ing it pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive for them to bring do­mes­tic bees to their crops, and the wild bees were mostly gone. But the grow­ers are now be­ing helped by the Xerces So­ci­ety, the only ma­jor non­profit in North Amer­ica de­voted to sav­ing in­ver­te­brates. Ditches, road­sides, and other ar­eas not used for al­mond production are be­ing re­stored to wild­flower mead­ows, in which not only bees but other wildlife is thriv­ing. So pop­u­lar is the pro­ject with grow­ers that even a farm owned by an in­ter­na­tional agribusi­ness con­glom­er­ate based in Sin­ga­pore has joined in. Yet such is the ex­tent of the Beep­oca­lypse that the work of the Xerces So­ci­ety in Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley is nought but a tiny ray of hope in a world fac­ing

a full-blown bee cri­sis. Only a ma­jor re­or­ga­ni­za­tion of agri­cul­ture, so that bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion on crop­lands be­comes a re­al­ity, can turn that around.

The so­cial in­sects—bees, ants, and ter­mites—have in­spired us since at least bib­li­cal times: in them we see a zeal for work, a wis­dom in pro­vid­ing for the fu­ture, and a sense of order that is of­ten lamentably lack­ing in our so­ci­eties. But as Lisa Mar­gonelli so el­e­gantly demon­strates in Un­der­bug, when we look at so­cial in­sects, all too of­ten we see only what we want to see. Wil­liam Wheeler, an Amer­i­can en­to­mol­o­gist who coined the term “su­per­or­gan­ism,” of­fers a cau­tion­ary tale in this re­gard. In 1919 he penned a comic speech from the per­spec­tive of a ter­mite king called Wee-Wee, in which the monarch de­scribes a ter­mite utopia in­hab­ited by a “phys­i­cally and men­tally per­fect race.” This per­fect so­ci­ety, how­ever, has been cre­ated by elim­i­nat­ing old, un­pro­duc­tive, or un­fit in­di­vid­u­als by gassing them with hy­dro­cyanic acid. By the 1930s hy­dro­cyanic acid was known as Zyk­lon B, and it was used dur­ing World War II by the Nazis to mur­der mil­lions of in­di­vid­u­als whom they had de­cided were “un­wor­thy of life.”

A very dif­fer­ent view of ter­mite so­ci­ety was pro­duced by the South African jour­nal­ist, poet, and lawyer Eugène Marais. Af­ter his wife died in 1905, he wan­dered into the veldt, where he took mor­phine and stud­ied ter­mites. His Soul of the White Ant, which Mar­gonelli de­scribes as “part close ob­ser­va­tion, part po­etic rid­dle, and part thumb­nail guide to the uni­verse,” is one of the great­est na­ture books ever writ­ten.

Ter­mites are very dif­fer­ent from other so­cial in­sects like ants and bees. They are spe­cial­ized cock­roaches that have be­come so­cial and minia­tur­ized, and they share a com­plex ecosys­tem of gut mi­crobes that en­able them to break down cel­lu­lose. These mi­crobes are con­stantly shared be­tween in­di­vid­ual ter­mites through a prac­tice known as “trophal­laxis,” which in­volves shar­ing food mouth-to-mouth and lick­ing each other’s anuses. With an eye to the hu­man love of shar­ing food, Wheeler de­scribed trophal­laxis as, in Mar­gonelli’s words, “the su­per­glue of so­ci­eties both in­sect and hu­man.” For ter­mites, how­ever, trophal­laxis leads to the cre­ation of a colony-wide biodi­gester that con­sti­tutes a shared stom­ach, just as the struc­tural el­e­ments of the ter­mite mound con­sti­tute a shared in­tegu­ment for the in­di­vid­u­als in­side.

Mar­gonelli’s quest re­volves around un­der­stand­ing two im­por­tant as­pects of ter­mite bi­ol­ogy: their so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion and their as­ton­ish­ing gut flora. Her tale be­gins in the Ari­zona desert, where she ac­com­pa­nies re­searchers as they col­lect ter­mites for clas­si­fi­ca­tion and anal­y­sis, but it soon fo­cuses on two lab­o­ra­to­ries where ter­mite be­hav­ior and di­ges­tion are be­ing stud­ied. Both of the projects she doc­u­ments, in­ci­den­tally, are heav­ily funded by the US mil­i­tary.

When Mar­gonelli first meets the re­searchers at the Joint BioEn­ergy In­sti­tute (JBEI) in Emeryville, Cal­i­for­nia, they are work­ing to pro­duce fuel from plant mat­ter by di­gest­ing cel­lu­lose us­ing mi­crobes found in ter­mite guts. Their goal is to pro­duce bio­fuel at a price that is com­pet­i­tive with gaso­line de­rived from fos­sil fu­els. Their ap­proach in­volves se­quenc­ing DNA de­rived from ter­mite gut ex­tract, a task at which they are so suc­cess­ful that they soon be­come over­whelmed with data. By the time Mar­gonelli com­pleted the re­search for her book, the team has re­duced the cost of their bio­fuel from around $100,000 to $30 per liter. But the com­plex­ity of the mi­crobe as­sem­blage in the ter­mite di­ges­tive sys­tem is so great that they are un­able to scale up the process and re­duce costs fur­ther. Héc­tor Gar­cía Martín, a Span­ish physi­cist, is the quixotic hero of the JBEI team. He ab­hors the seem­ingly ad hoc meth­ods used by the bi­ol­o­gists, as well as their view that life is so com­plex that it can­not be re­duced to simple laws. A con­densed mat­ter physi­cist, he wants to un­der­stand me­tab­o­lism, which he de­scribes as the big un­der­ly­ing sys­tem en­abling life, so that he can re­duce it to de­fin­able terms. Ul­ti­mately, bi­ol­ogy de­fies re­duc­tion, though Martín does achieve a small vic­tory by bring­ing order to the lab’s pro­ce­dures and re­port­ing meth­ods.

The sci­en­tists in­ves­ti­gat­ing Mar­gonelli’s second area of in­ter­est—ter­mite so­cial­ity—are led by the Har­vard­based roboti­cist Rad­hika Nag­pal. When the group turns up at a re­search sta­tion in Namibia, they seem badly out of place. Tied to their com­puter screens, they rarely emerge to en­joy the glo­ries of the Namib­ian desert, and when a lo­cal en­to­mol­o­gist cooks them a feast of game, lo­cal sausages, and stuffed squash and calls them to the ta­ble, they don’t even look up. Mar­gonelli de­scribes their re­search in Namibia as “in­cred­i­bly strange.” In their quest to make ro­botic ter­mites, they set up an ex­per­i­ment in which they ob­serve real ter­mites as they mod­ify molded daisy shapes made of col­ored earth. The pur­pose is to en­able de­scrip­tion of ter­mite move­ment in terms of “chirps.” Chirps are pulses of sound that engi­neers feed into “black boxes” (mech­a­nisms whose in­ner work­ings are un­known) to ob­serve what comes out. Mar­gonelli de­scribes the ex­er­cise as “turn­ing an elec­tronic pulse into a ter­mite play­ground.” In­cred­i­bly, the re­searcher con­duct­ing the ex­per­i­ment sees the liv­ing ter­mites as “a dis­trac­tion”: “In a per­fect world he would re­con­struct what ter­mites do by ig­nor­ing them en­tirely,” says Mar­gonelli.

The ro­bot­ics re­searchers imag­ine that ter­mites are “‘state­less au­tom­ata’— mem­o­ry­less iden­ti­cal ma­chines that only re­act,” and this is the kind of ro­bot they are at­tempt­ing to cre­ate. Yet ar­guably the biggest sin­gle break­through re­ported in Un­der­bug dra­mat­i­cally up­ended this view of ter­mites. It was made in 2013, when a mem­ber of the ro­bot­ics team worked out how to track in­di­vid­ual ter­mites as they go about their work. Im­me­di­ately, it be­came clear that each ter­mite is unique: out of a group of twenty-five ter­mites in one petri dish, for ex­am­ple, only two were de­voted to con­struc­tion (though an­other four helped oc­ca­sion­ally), while nine­teen “just ran around.” Far from be­ing mind­less au­tom­ata, the ter­mites “do what­ever they felt like: dig, take up soil and clean the dish, sit around.”

The only way to in­ter­pret these find­ings, the re­searchers con­cluded, was that “the in­formed in­di­vid­u­als have a pur­pose. They have an opin­ion.” Mar­gonelli con­cludes that the function of “in­formed in­di­vid­u­als” as lead­ers in an­i­mal col­lec­tives as di­verse as fish, birds, and ants, not to men­tion some hu­man so­ci­eties, is pro­found. The strength of the sys­tem is that it does not de­pend on sin­gle lead­ers, yet it takes ad­van­tage of their abil­i­ties in ways that “re­duce the like­li­hood of fol­low­ing a re­ally ec­cen­tric” in­di­vid­ual “with a bad idea, which is some­thing hu­mans might want to look into.”

Though they ini­tially en­tirely mis­un­der­stood ter­mites, the roboti­cists achieve huge suc­cess when they man­u­fac­ture some tis­sue-box-sized ro­botic ter­mites (dubbed TERMES) that co­op­er­ate to build walls from plas­tic blocks by fol­low­ing a simple set of in­struc­tions. They are the first ro­bots ever to do this, and so sig­nal was their achieve­ment that in Fe­bru­ary 2014 they made the cover of the pres­ti­gious jour­nal Sci­ence, and the ro­bot­ics team was in­vited to demon­strate them at the an­nual meeting of the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence.

De­spite their con­sid­er­able achieve­ments, the TERMES ro­bots are far from the so­phis­ti­cated swarms of minia­ture, in­sect-like au­tom­ata that some roboti­cists think will ex­ist in the fu­ture. Stu­art Russell, a Berkeley-based roboti­cist, for ex­am­ple, thinks that the Preda­tor drones of the fu­ture will be bee-sized and carry a one-gram charge able to punc­ture a hu­man cra­nium— “the per­fect as­sas­sin,” Mar­gonelli says. As Mar­gonelli con­tem­plates the mil­i­tary fund­ing of the ro­bot­ics pro­ject, those fu­ture swarms of minia­tur­ized au­tom­ata be­gin to worry her. One night, with time on her hands, she Googles the desert in Ari­zona where her work on the book be­gan and dis­cov­ers that Preda­tor drones were fly­ing over­head as she hunted for ter­mites. Af­ter be­ing used for years to track and kill people in places like Afghanistan, Ye­men, and Pak­istan, the drones had, “with­out any demo­cratic dis­cus­sion,” come to the US.

Mark Hagerott, a navy cap­tain who has served in the Per­sian Gulf and Afghanistan, is deeply con­cerned about ro­botic war­fare. He thinks that we are about to cross a thresh­old be­yond which hu­man em­pa­thy will be re­moved from armed con­flict. He spends his days trav­el­ing to con­fer­ences and warning gov­ern­ments that they must agree to a treaty on ro­bots in war be­fore they de­liver “in­cred­i­ble power” to despots. Yet he sees the tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment of the mini-drones as un­stop­pable, which raises a se­ries of enor­mously dif­fi­cult moral choices for gov­ern­ments de­ploy­ing the new weapons.

As hu­mans be­come ever more in­ter­con­nected, and ever more ca­pa­ble of mim­ick­ing the com­plex chem­istry and function of in­sects, how will our fu­ture be in­flu­enced? Mar­gonelli says that “right now a ter­mite mound is a thing, a con­struct of fun­gus and ter­mites and natural his­tory. Some­day we will live in it, with all its sym­bi­otic by-prod­ucts, its para­doxes of abun­dance and con­trol, and its pe­cu­liar self-or­ga­nized con­struc­tion.” De­spite fall­ing far short of Marais’s The Soul of the White Ant in clar­ity and po­etry, Un­der­bug is an ex­tra­or­di­nary provo­ca­tion. Those will­ing to fol­low its me­an­der­ing ar­gu­ments may find in­trigu­ing clues to hu­man­ity’s fate.

A sweat bee (Hal­ic­tus lig­a­tus) coated with pollen, 2013; dig­i­tal com­pos­ite pho­to­graph from the USGS Bee In­ven­tory and Mon­i­tor­ing Lab’s cat­a­log of na­tive bees. It ap­pears in the book An­i­mal: Ex­plor­ing the Zoo­log­i­cal World, just pub­lished by Phaidon.

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