Whenever a book features honey bees like The Bees: A Novel by Laline Paull, it is likely to catch the interest of apidologists and others who find bees fascinating. Although this book falls definitively in the realm of fiction, that does not mean it has nothing to say about honey bees or, for that matter, our human perception of them. For this particular novel, however, separating the fact from the fiction is where things get sticky.

Told from a third person limited point of view, Flora 717 is a member of the sanitation caste of her honey bee hive. We soon learn that she is no ordinary sanitation worker when she is allowed to feed the new larvae in the Nursery. There, in a bit of foreshadowing, it is revealed that only the Queen may breed and Flora 717 is introduced to the gruesome fertility police.  What else will this special worker bee do?

The book contains facts, such as honey bee workers produce wax from glands on their abdomen or that drones are kicked out of the hive in the fall, mixed with highly imaginative elements. Sometimes the creative aspects of the story are easy to discern, for example there is a Greek chorus of spiders that exchange glimpses of the future for honey bee sacrifices. Other parts, like Flora 717's changing tasks through time, will be more difficult to decipher. Anyone familiar with honey bees will understand that they exhibit age or temporal polyethism, which means that the tasks they perform are generally determined by their age. The youngest honey bee workers are likely to clean cells, and then tend brood. Once the workers are a bit older they maintain the nest, as needed. Finally the workers process food, and the very oldest honey bees go outside the nest and forage for nectar and pollen. Thus, ironically, Flora 717 is not an unusual bee as she is described in the novel, but actually is the only bee in the hive that is exhibiting more or less normal honey bee behavior. Trying to avoid spoilers, it should also be noted that an event in the end will seem (to those that understand haplodiploidy) rather like those children's cartoons that show male cows with udders.

The New York Times Review reveals some of the foibles of reading a work of fiction that is built on a foundation of reality. Emma Straub, the reviewer, suggests high school environmental science and biology teachers add the book to their syllabuses. In all due respect, I think they'd be better off with more authoritative text. How about Sue Hubbell's A Book of Bees, or something similar and newer?

Many of the reviewers (who understand the novel is fiction) try to tie The Bees to other classic novels, such as  Watership Down, The Handmaid’s Tale, or even The Hunger Games. It is as if the readers need to put a tag on the novel to understand it more fully. In my view, The Bees is actually as individualistic as its main character Flora 717. If it needs a tag, then I would say "magical realism" might be the best choice.

If you read The Bees, keeping in mind that it is novel and suspending a bit of disbelief, then you are likely to find it entertaining and maybe even thought provoking. What more can a reader ask of a novel?

Have you read it? What do you think?

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A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell

Disclosures:  This book review was based on a personal copy of the book. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Now that the blog is all cleaned up, it is time to get out and spend more time looking for and watching ants.

dorymyrmex-insanus-firstThe very first colony I found turned out to be a common ant, but one that I haven't documented before. Do you recognize it?

Dorymyrmex-insanus-2-active

After checking a specimen under the scope, it was evident these were in the genus Dorymyrmex because there was a protruding bump on the propodeum, which gives them the name "cone" or "pyramid" ant.

aaa-dorymyrmex-on-sandmat-close

Here in Arizona, we regularly see another species in the same genus, Dorymyrmex bicolor, which has a brownish-red head and mesosoma.

dorymyrmex-insanus-close

The dark-colored western cone ants are generally called Dorymyrmex insanus, although the scientific name has been changing "crazily" over a century, plus the genus seriously needs to be revised (Navajo Nature).

The common name isn't much better. As indicated by the "insane" species name, these ants are commonly called "crazy ants" because they move erratically. The name crazy ant causes confusion, however, because there are now invasive/pest species with similar names, such as Nylanderia fulva (the tawny or Rasberry crazy ant) or Paratrechina longicornis (the longhorn crazy ant). Perhaps we should stick to cone ants?

Dorymyrmex insanus are known to inhabit dry, open areas like the Sonoran desert. They live in small colonies (roughly 2000-3000 workers) in the soil. Like many other kinds of ants, they feed on scavenged insects/dead things and also tend aphids for honeydew.

In his book Adventures Among Ants (reviewed here), Mark Moffett noted that cone ants have been observed grooming harvester ants. Generally ants fight or avoid each other when they encounter ants of a different species, but these cone ants were photographed licking a much-larger Pogonomyrmex worker and leaving it unharmed. James Trager calls cone ants the "cleaner fishes" of the ant world. You can see his photograph at BugGuide.

Have you ever seen Dorymyrmex insanus ants? Where did you find them?

Reference:  Snelling, Roy R. 1995. Systematics of the Nearctic genus Dorymyrmex (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Contributions in Science (Los Angeles) 454:1-14.  (Available as free .pdf)

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You might have noticed that we've done a bit of spring housecleaning here at Wild About Ants. Mostly, it was because of issues on the editorial side with the old theme. The old theme was clunky to upgrade and had a few eccentricities. This one is much better.

If you have a minute, would you take a look at the background color? I tried to match the yellow in the flowers, but I'm not sure it is a very attractive color. Please let me know what you think.

 

Thanks!

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Our ideas are, of course, colored by our experiences and environment. It seems likely that those of us who spend time studying ants and other social hymenoptera might lean towards thinking about superorganism concepts and multilevel selection. We are also likely to be or become interested in altruism. If that is the case, you might want to take a look at David Sloan Wilson's new book Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Foundational Questions in Science).

 

Right up front, Dr. Wilson only briefly mentions social insects and spends a much greater amount of time laying out the thoughts that economists, philosophers, psychologists, and others have about altruism and human behavior, topics which might not be as familiar to people trained in biology. Dr. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, however, so he examines human behavior through a recognizable lens.

Wilson defines altruism as an intentional act that improves the welfare of others at a cost to, or at least no benefit to, the actor. After introducing the ideas of superorganisms and group-level selection, Wilson quickly determines that altruism does indeed exist, but that it is a group-level rather than individual-level phenomenon. He also takes studying altruism to a new place by separating the act of altruism from any apparent motivations for acting (a necessarily murky area). He then looks for examples of how this works in religion, in economics, and in communities. He reveals that altruism can at times be pathological, for example in cases of co-dependency. In the final chapter on "Planetary Altruism," Wilson moves into the realm of group-level functions at the level of the world as a whole.

As the author points out in the introduction, this slim volume is the first in a series of "short books on big questions" being published by Templeton Press and Yale University Press. In this case size does matter, which may be frustrating to those who want more than a concise (read narrow?) overview of the topic. Years of thought and research, or whole books are necessarily condensed into single paragraphs, in fact sometimes even into single sentences. It all feels very much like the tip of a very big (and possibly unstable) iceberg.

Because of its complexity and potential for controversy, Does Altruism Exist? really needs to be read deeply and preferably discussed/debated with others. It would be excellent as the basis of a semester-long graduate-level discussion seminar.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Series: Foundational Questions in Science
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (January 13, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0300189494
ISBN-13: 978-0300189490

Disclosures:  This book review was based on a copy of the book I purchased. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.