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The queen pheromone conveys the so-called “queenright” message that confirms the queen’s continued fertile presence. If the queen dies the workers know within 30 to 60 minutes that something is amiss, because the pheromone stops coming through. “A sense of disarray and nervousness permeates the nest,” says Winston. The workers, like deprived addicts, frantically try to develop a new queen by feeding a reinforced diet (“royal jelly”) to some lucky larva. If the recovery effort fails, which can happen, the colony is in chaos and it disintegrates within a couple months.
The queen’s bounteous and multifarious pheromone has additional functions. It keeps the queen on top by suppressing ovary development in the worker bees. It channels the workers' activity, for example by stimulating workers to speed up construction of new honeycomb when necessary, or to spend more time nursing the larvae.
Honeybees progress through various roles in their brief lifespans. Their first job is to be nest-cleaning staff. Then they become, in sequence, brood nurses, warehouse hands, construction laborers, nest fanners and at about age 25 (that is, 25 days) they do guard duty. They finish their lives by foraging for 5 to 10 days before burning out and dying at 25 to 35 days of age. But when the colony is under stress, the queen, as pheromoner-in-chief, can revamp the assignments, prompting workers to go forage earlier, fly with heavier loads, and work themselves to death for the greater good.
The author’s angle on all this is that the queen pheromone is just one of many signals that shape honeybee activity. Other chemical signals include, for instance, the alarm pheromone guards emit to summon other workers to help defend the hive. More complex signals include the weather and the season of the year. To top it off, there is a certain amount of unpredictability due to genetic diversity. Individual honeybees have different thresholds before they respond to this or that stimulus — before they agree to fly off to this or that floral paradise reported in dance by some excited bee explorer, for example.
Winston interprets this sliver of independence as a political arrangement wherein individuals have decision-making power in their local sphere while still pursuing the common purpose.
That feels a bit puffed-up to me. Far from imagining honeybees as spiritually enlightened, as I read Bee Time I increasingly understood their behavior mechanistically, as though bees, and the hive too, were animate machines responding to input from nature’s massive biochemical stimulus-response system.
One way or another, there are indications, not exactly hidden between the lines, that Winston thinks regimentation may be humanity’s future: “Our decision either to emulate honeybees by opting for the collective good or to pursue personal interests and individual gain may be the decisive factor” in whether we survive our environmental challenges, he says.
Sorry to end on what maybe sounds like a grim note to some people, but the book made me do it.