Backyard Beekeepers Abuzz Over Social Life of Hive

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In the beehive, Clayton said, each age group of workers has a task, moving up the task ladder throughout their five- to six-week life span.

Young workers, which are from 1 to 12 days old, clean the cells, nurse the brood, and tend the queen. Middle-aged workers, from 12 to 28 days old, build the comb, store the nectar and pollen brought in by foragers, and ventilate the nests. Foragers are 28 days old and older. These older workers also serve as undertakers, keeping the hive clean of bee corpses.

According to Clayton, when one worker fails to show for its scheduled job, another worker from lower down the hierarchy will fill the vacancy. Scientific research also shows that the workers higher on the pecking order will move down to perform a lower task, if needed.

"It's just a … highly inter-cooperative society that is enviable to observe," Clayton said in an interview with the radio program Pulse of the Planet.

Enviable Cooperation?

Clayton said this coordination among the bees reminds of her the high level of cooperation among her colleagues at the medical center in Walnut Creek, where she works as a geriatric neuropsychologist.

"To see someone come in with a heart attack, everyone knows what to do. There's no need to talk or speak about it. You need to save that life, and everybody gets to work in like ten seconds," she said.

Clayton believes that such cooperation is rare among people and says bees outshine humans when it comes to working together to get a task accomplished.

But Joe Graham, editor of the American Bee Journal, said it is wise to exercise caution when praising honeybee behavior.

"Honeybees and their popularized industriousness, organization, and self-sacrifice have been praised by many different cultures," he said. "However, modern science has played the part of the spoiler."

Flottum, of the Eastern Apiculture Society, cites an example: Honeybee queens control the behavior of worker bees by releasing chemical substances known as pheromones.

His parting thought: "Do we as humans strive for success and advancement by cooperation [that is] managed, whether by power or chemicals? Or should we be less cooperative and a little more independent and more democratic?"

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