In the light of the theme for the November Conference,
Audacious Ideas for the Future of Beekeeping, here are
two ideas involving rodents and soldiers with PTSD that
relate to the big (VERY big) picture.
If a rat in a small cage is given two water bottles - one with
just water, the other with water laced with morphine, heroin
or cocaine - the rat will almost always prefer the drugged
water even though it leads to its own demise.
This was the prevalent theory of addiction: drug dependency
is a moral failing and we are inherently hedonists who party
too hard until the brain is hijacked.
In 1981 Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander and his
colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia,
asked if the choice was a reflection of living conditions
rather than the addictive properties of the drugs. So they
built a kind of rat heaven: a colony 200 times the floor area
of a standard laboratory cage, with 16–20 rats of both sexes
in residence, food, balls and wheels for play, and enough
space for mating. Everything a rat might want.
They also got both the water bottles - the contaminated
and the normal water. Fascinatingly, in this environment,
the rats chose the latter. To generalize the overall finding
of some complex experiments, few of the rats overdosed,
few developed a behavior that looked like compulsion or
Alexander argues that addiction is caused not by morality
nor by our brains, but by our ‘cage.’ Addiction, he argued,
is an adaptation to our environment. Large numbers of
us cannot bear to be present in our lives without some
form of drug. We’ve created a hyper-consumerist, hyperindividualist,
isolated world whereas what we yearn for is connection with people, a sense of relationship, self worth
and dignity. This is contrary to the prevailing message that
skillfully trains us from a young age to focus our hopes,
dreams and ambitions on things we can buy and consume. A
dependence on money has replaced our direct relationships
with one another and nature, and not only do we use money
as the measure of our accomplishments but we relinquish
control of our lives to institutions that control our access to
It is important to say that the findings remain controversial.
The results have been difficult to replicate and it appears
there might be a genetic component to the behaviors.
Driving home from our May beekeeper meeting, I listened
to ‘On Point’ on the car radio, specifically an interview with
Sebastian Junger, the author of “Tribe: On Homecoming
and Belonging.” He described how, after months of combat
during which “soldiers all but ignore differences of race,
religion and politics within their platoon,” they return to
the United States to find “a society that is basically at war
with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about
— depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the
educated, the foreign-born, the president or the entire U.S.
It’s a formula for deep despair. “Today’s veterans often
come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for
their country,” he writes, “they’re not sure how to live for
The premise is simple: modern civilization may provide
us with unimaginable autonomy and material bounty, but
it has also deprived us of the psychologically invaluable
sense of community and interdependence that we hominids
enjoyed for millions of years. It is only during moments of
great adversity that we come together and enjoy that kind
of fellowship — which may explain why, paradoxically, we
thrive during those moments. (In the six months after Sept.
11, Mr. Junger writes, the murder rate in New York dropped
by 40%, and the suicide rate by 20%)
War, too, for all of its brutality and ugliness, satisfies some
of our deepest evolutionary yearnings for connectedness.
Soldiers have a chance to demonstrate their valor and
loyalty, to work cooperatively, to show utter selflessness.
Platoons are like tribes.
Back home we have “detribalized”. Our personal loyalties
have shrunk to a universe the size of our homes (our
immediate families, maybe a few friends;) we have little
regard for what’s collectively ours - we litter, we fudge on
our taxes, medical providers defraud Medicare, bankers
perform sleights of hand with the markets and destroy the
Mr. Junger’s asks why roughly 50% of our Iraq and
Afghanistan veterans apply for permanent PTSD disability
when only 10 percent of them saw combat? “The problem
doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield,” he concludes,
“so much as re-entry into society.”
Soldiers go from a world in which they’re united,
interconnected and indispensable to one in which they’re
isolated, without purpose, and bombarded with images of
politicians and civilians screaming at one another on TV.
Is there any relevance for what we see in the behaviors of
First, let’s think of the cage analogy as the roughly 10 000
acres within which a colony of bees will forage. We know
only too well that the gasses developed to kill people in the
First World War (and they were damn good at it) were later
adapted to kill insects. Arsenic and salts were replaced by
organochlorines like DDT in the 50’s, by organophosphates
in the 70’s, pyrethroids in the 80’s and neonicotinoids in the
90’s. These were massively applied to the monocultures,
which replaced smaller diversified farms at the same time
as new parasites, and pathogens from Asia and Africa
were introduced and the world climate reacted to the
environmental abuses of the Industrial Revolution.
And what if we shrink the dimensions of the cage to that of a
beehive? Wax absorbs impurities from the atmosphere, much
as our kidneys do on our bodies. Jim and Maryann Frazier,
together with Chris Mullin, demonstrated that forager bees
bring back to the hive an average of six different pesticides
on the pollen they collect. Nurse bees use this pollen to
make beebread, which they then feed to larvae. Over and
above this are the chemicals that beekeepers themselves
introduce into the colony.
So is the current behavior of the bees an unhealthy response
to their macro and micro environments to the point that they
are no longer capable of choosing the ‘clean water’ when it
is available to them?
Bees also have some kind of long term memory, which
we improperly understand. For example, how do bees
know to prepare for a winter when none of them, except
possibly the queen, has lived through a full year? Is it only
a genetic response to changing daylight hours? And Tom
Seeley demonstrates how, given choices, scout bees will
unerringly choose the ideal dimensions for a future home.
The means that those bees, who have never experienced
any other abode, somehow know what the requirements
are for sustainable living in terms of volume, height above
ground, size of entrance, which direction it faces and ability
to withstand moisture. How do they know this? Is it some
kind of inherited long term memory?
Is it possible that honey bees can compare the ideal with
reality, not least when we as beekeepers, apparently in the
bees’ interests, tear the roof of the house, fill it with smoke,
separate the different stories, pull out the room dividers, turn
the bees upside down (literally) and then reassemble that
house often in a different order?
Perhaps the problem is that the bees, after having fought a
war with the environment, have trouble reentering their own
society. Are we witnessing PTSD at an insect level?