The Bumblebee’s Choice

So I finish the last post with a comment on the individual’s creative license with heritage in a dialectic with the society’s need for its members to carry on responsibly and then I read an article in the Economist (8/2/14) about bumblebee’s independent choices.  Well, maybe.


First of all though, for those interested in a deeper explication of this dialectic, see Susanne Langer’s Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, V. 3, around page 125 in the chapter on Ethnic Balance in the section on The Moral Structure.  Now, bumblebees.  Researchers in England wanted to study their choices in going to new sources of sustenance.  Unlike honeybees that dance to communicate the whereabouts of a new pollen source, bumblebees bring new scents back to the hive and then the next scouts go in search of those scents. I am not sure I understand completely their method from the article but it involved getting bees used to geranium flowers through scented fake flowers and sugar water and then manipulating the scents of the hive with lavender and tracking how efficiently the bees who returned home to the new scent picked up on this new scent and next went out for the lavender.  They expected the scouts to go out and search for the lavender based upon the social information provided by the hive but they stayed with the geraniums until they proved to be sugarless and then went on to the lavender.  Bees from a geranium scented hive took longer to switch over than bees from the lavender scented one, so there was some facilitation of the new choice but the researchers wondered why the bumbles had ignored the hive’s scent.  Maybe it was that new paths could be more dangerous, the article speculates, but this seems too complicated to me for our little buddies to process.  I would suspect some tendency to follow the old path as long as it was productive (reinforcing) or that the artificial scenting of the hive was done in a way that was not genuine for the bees.  Maybe too heavy handed as when a lady sits next to your table in a restaurant wearing a perfume you might like but so heavily you cannot enjoy your meal.  Scent is funny that way.

This issue reminded me of an old article, The MIsbehavior of Organisms by Marian and Keller Breland from 1961, that i read in graduate school around 1986.  The Brelands had studied with B.F. Skinner, became experts at operant conditioning, and then went on to become very successful animal trainers for TV and movies, etc.  Their paper documented that no matter how rigorous the operant conditioning, animals sometimes went their own way, perhaps due to what they called instinctive drift.  The example I remember best is their description of dogs playing baseball.  No matter how regular and consistent they performed their actions, once in awhile a dog supposed to run to first base took off to left field (literally and figuratively).  A reminder that an organism by definition is autonomous and follows the rules creatively sometimes.  That’s life, as Frank used to sing.


Finally here is a picture from our garden of a bumblebee deep within a squash blossom.  I watched it for several minutes and left before it came out probably full and laden with pollen.  And that brings up a haiku by Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese poet: 

      The bee emerging

      from deep within the peony

      departs reluctantly.


Make it so.

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