Last week a good friend of mine sent me an article on bees she found while doing some research of her own. The article, in The Funambulist Papers 60, was written by Renisa Mawani. It’s called “Bee Workers and the Expanding Edges of Capitalism” (posted December 28, 2014 by Leopold Lambert). The writer explores our often troubled interactions with honeybees, expands our understanding of “bee workers,” and offers a Marxist reading of non-human labor and our exploitation of honeybees.
I found the article mesmerizing! Bees used for military purposes? What next? Well, quickly doing a google search, I realized that not only are bees being used for bomb-sniffing, but also drug-busting and cancer-detecting. Bees have a highly acute sense of smell (which they need for foraging), and apparently they can be trained ‘easily’ to sniff out a variety of chemical substances.
My ignorance is legion!
I have some familiarity with issues that plague honeybees–from diseases and mites, pesticides and chemicals, malnutrition and loss of forage; commercial pollination practices, CCD. I know we have harvested the labours of the honeybee since pre-historic times, that throughout our long relationship with them, we have viewed the honeybee as sacred and at the same time, expendable. We use the products of bee labor– honey and wax and propolis and pollen and the venom of bees, both for our own pleasure and for our health. We have exploited the honeybee and we continue to exploit this tiny insect without qualms, apparently. The image above is taken from an online article of the MIT Review, “Using Bees to Detect Bombs. Honeybees might one day join the front line of national security.” ((Dec7, 2006) Here’s an excerpt:
Timothy Haarmann, principal investigator of the Los Alamos project (officially called the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project), says he and his colleagues trained bees to extend their proboscises–tubular organs used to suck the nectar from flowers–in the presence of explosives. When the proboscis is extended, the bee appears to be sticking out its tongue.
Training 50 bees requires only two or three hours using this traditional approach, which takes advantage of an insect’s attraction to sugar water. “If you hold up sugar water [to bees], they stick out their proboscis,” Haarmann says.
By combining a target substance with sugar water and then presenting the compound to the bee, the researchers manipulate the insects into recognizing a distinct smell. By the end of the session, successfully trained bees extend their proboscises toward explosives.
In Haarmann’s system the bees are contained in tubes so that their proboscises can be easily monitored. Unfortunately, a contained bee only lasts about two days. “We find that after about 48 hours you start to get a high mortality rate,” Haarmann says. Being confined is “hard on them.”
Really! I wonder what do 2 days of imprisoned confinement out of the 60 or so days of a honeybee’s life correspond to in human terms?