Colonies and Communities through the COVID-19 lens

Commonality between Bee Colonies and Urban Communities is stark!

The pandemic has forced us into social isolation. From the confines of the balcony, the crimson tip butterfly is on a yellow hued wildflower. The verdant carpet of grass, with the glint of sunshine on the blades is breath-taking and is therapeutic. Then the invite through the sonorous sound of the cuckoo. Nature is making a valiant attempt to erase the drabness. With a pair of binoculars in hand, trying to spot the cuckoo, I chanced upon a bee hive perched on the ledge a few storeys up.

With a slacked jaw and a fixed gaze, I pored into the powerful lens. The meditative buzz of togetherness of the bees in the pre-monsoon mist conjured up a spectacular sight. The bees’ brilliant yellow hue with reassuring black bands made the visual all the more alluring.

Unmistakably the communal chorus of the rock bees (Apis Dorsata) seems random and chaotic. Aided by powerful lens a closer view showcased the organised manner the bees’ waggle-dance, busy in their tasks to protect and forage.

After a while, I stepped back into my room. The “Grumbling Hive”, by Bernard Mandeville, (Dutch philosopher and poet), and the newspaper headline crying out the mounting numbers of COVID-19 cases, perched a juxtaposed image in my mind.

Does the beehive make a microcosm for the society characterized with community living and division of labour? Does the bee colony resemble the urban community we live in Bangalore?

Social insects like honey bees live in densely packed hives.

Buzzing beehives with temperatures around 35°C in the brood area, coupled with sugary nectar and larvae provide the ideal conditions to attract disease. How do they go about doing their tasks without being burdened by the need of social or physical distancing , yet prepare themselves against any attack by pathogens?

Are there defence lines the bee colonies have developed over their evolution?

In the backdrop of the pandemic can something be imbibed from the lives of the bees? An intriguing thought, worth exploring.

The phrases of “Self-Immunity”, “Herd Immunity”, “Social Distancing”, “Lock-Down”, “Vaccine”, “Testing”, “Lives and Livelihood” have entered the mainstream lexicon as we grapple with COVID-19.

Are there commonalities between colonies and communities?

Globally India is among the top countries in terms of population density. Physical distancing is inherently difficult to practise. Migrant worker housing societies, railway and bus stations, nursing homes and hospitals are places where it is even harder. With all good intentions, we may be fighting a losing battle in the face of a highly transmissible pandemic.

Debates on what is important — lives or livelihood are raging in mainstream media. Understanding how we manage ourselves in these extraordinary circumstances could make all the difference between returning to economic activity while continuing with precautionary measures.

Can social insects like bees provide the answers?

A few pursuits have been guiding us to combat the pandemic. Most of them are externally focused. Some have external dependencies like testing and the launch of the vaccine. Then, wearing masks, following social distancing etiquettes are mostly governed by the community one lives in.

However, building self-immunity is completely within us to manage. If managed well we could aggregate the benefits in building social immunity. Is self-immunity a nature’s gift or can be nurtured?

To help understand the workings of the immune system the following are the three key scientific terms:

Pathogens: Microbes (aka germs) that can infect the body and cause illness.

Antigens: Proteins found on the surface of pathogens.

Antibodies: Healthy proteins that can recognize and bind with specific antigens.

The above would help us understand the “Hygiene Hypothesis” as explained later.

When pathogens attack our bodies, we produce vast quantities of antibodies as our primary defense mechanism. However, insects lack antibodies. But they do not keel over at the first symptom of a disease, so how do they stave off the attack?

Behavioral ecologists have studied social interactions in honey bees. Densely packed, with conditions being ideal for an outbreak of disease, the bees in the hives have developed unique behavioral and social ways to deal with disease by collectively working to keep the colony healthy and thriving.

The COVID-19 pandemic will be officially in its 6th month as of September 2020. Social distancing aided by lockdown seems to be slowing down the spread of the virus. The collateral effect being people are getting lockdown-fatigued and self-quarantine guidelines are getting watered down.

This brings to the foreground the importance of self-immunity. Introducing the term “hygiene hypothesis” — explained as individuals who are exposed to a variety of microbes (aka germs) in the childhood build better self-immunity. This is possible with the creation of a robust immune system by which the body remembers the pathogens as they show up. The body starts making antibodies to destroy the unwelcome intruder. COVID-19 may be novel in many ways. One may argue that the immune system would not have “specific” memory of the virus, however it is assessed that the body’s self-immunity would spur into action and mount a response anyway.

Honey bees have a highly developed form of social biology. The tasks are distributed among workers according to their age. The younger bees perform housekeeping tasks (aka “nurse bees”) then switching to the foraging duties as they grow older. This division of labour is vital for the colony to function and thrive.

Importantly, the division of labour among workers has a constitutive effect against the spread of pathogens within colonies. The youngest bees perform the “inside” tasks and are thus shielded from disease outside of the colony. As bees age they switch to foraging-related “outside” tasks. Here they are more at risk for exposure to disease, hence they interact less and less with the younger bees- the foragers hand over the food to the receivers who store it for the nurses to pick the food from the storage.

Doesn’t it look similar to the concept of “zoning” in communities, where in we collect the goods at the gate and avoiding door step delivery of goods by strangers.

Self-immunity is regulated based on the tasks and the environment. Hence, significantly more immune genes are “up-regulated” in the nurse bees, than among the foragers, to better respond to infection. However, the foragers get built with more (external) resistance to the pathogen than nurse bees.

Bees cannot wear masks or socially distance. However, each one contributes to the colonies’ health of through the effective and age-driven task allocation.

The pandemic has sharpened the task distribution in our households. Household duties are getting carved out with the designated persons in the family taking up outdoor and indoor tasks. Unwittingly, we are following the foraging and in-house activities,and possibly following the similar rules of adaption for self-immunity.

While nature plays a role , self-immunity can be nurtured though stress-control, balanced diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep.

There are some striking similarities between honey bees and humans. Both are highly social. The division of labour in bees is very distinctive and to an extent it is true for humans. A bee colony would resemble any bustling metropolis and is often termed as a “super-organism” — a highly connected community that functions like a single pulsating being.

Can we say the same about the urban gated communities we live in?

Like humans, individual worker bees have immune system albeit primitive that recognizes invading pathogens and fights them off. Elementary yet effective these are the haemocytes (or insect blood cells).

Any virus needs a host and if the host changes that could result in disaster. Relating this to COVID-19, the impact is deleterious when the host changed from bats to human beings. The similar disastrous effect happens to bee colonies with any change of host. There are examples when ectoparasites destroy the larvae resulting what was called colony collapse disorder.

Bees thus need distinctive tactics for fighting the parasites. One, they defend the colony via social immunity. Here again the division of labour comes to fore. Demonstrating cooperative behavioural effort, the “undertaker” (worker) bees remove the diseased and dead from the colony thereby reducing the transmission of infections.

Have we not seen and read about the Samaritans in communities doing the same among humans?

The second approach is through “Nest Mate Recognition” where the guard bees of the hive would not allow strangers into the hive and more importantly anywhere near the centre where the brood resides.

Does it not sound similar, when we restrict the unknown visitors from outside the community, as we keep ourselves quarantined?

In the bee colony, the philosophy is to cooperate as a group of comrade-members, a commonwealth in which the individual subsumes herself in the collective enterprise. The ultimate goal is for the good of the colony where each bee acts for the general benefit of all the other bees demonstrating collective responsibility.

Does this offer us a lesson on altruism, paring down individualism and freedom in the wake of the pandemic, so that we can stymie the spread?

The discipline is demonstrated through “grooming” as the first line of defence, which could be compared with humans’ wearing the mask, following hand sanitization and through social etiquette of self-isolation if exposed to the virus.

The beehive, of course, is a metaphor for society. Bernard Mandeville in the 17th century developed on this metaphor by saying that these humble social insects perform all activities required by humans to sustain life. But since their language is not known, we must call them as we do our own. How true even after four centuries!!

Is not that commonalities between colonies and communities are hard to ignore!!

Business Consulting pays the bills and taking care of Bees in wild calms the nerves