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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 13:41 GMT
Anti-social bee-haviour
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Honey bee
How do you discipline teenagers when, some at least, see punishment as a reward rather than a penalty? Studies of female-led societies present some rather unpalatable answers.

How successive home secretaries and police chiefs must dream of such arrangements, where just a single step out of line is met with a swift, ruthless rebuke.

No tricky human rights laws to navigate. No hand-wringing solicitors to slow things down or namby-pamby distractions like, yawn, the Rule of Law.

The regime in question is not that of some tyrannical Central Asian state or even a snapshot of how Britain one day might be - regardless of what's been said about how the UK is the most spied-on country in the world - but is much closer to home. It's the Order of the Beehive.

Honey bees abide by a strict social order but for years scientists have scratched their heads at how their simple but effective laws are enforced. Some assumed the bees acted out of altruism. But now it turns out coercion is the key.

The sum of which contrasts sharply with the latest evidence of human behaviour in 21st Century Britain.

Let's not demonise a whole generation. We are talking very, very small numbers
Home Office minister Tony McNulty

On every indicator of recklessness - drugs, drink, violence, promiscuity - British teenagers come out worst, according to research by the Institute of Public Policy Research.

Try to rope them in, and it gets even harder. Another study, by the Youth Justice Board, found that Asbos - Anti-Social Behavioural Orders - which seek to curtail disruptive behaviour, are seen by some teenagers not as a punishment but a reward.

This unruliness comes despite the fact Britain is now a "surveillance society" - it is home to 20% of all CCTV cameras on Earth - according to yet another report out this week, from the Information Commissioner.

Herod complex

Given such stark differences between the honey bee and human worlds, do we, perhaps, have anything to learn from our six-legged friends?

If your name's Josef Stalin or Kim Jong-il, you're already there. The unpalatable truth about our frenetic pollen-hungry friends is that they operate a sort of mini police state.

When it comes to disobedience in the beehive, there's no greater challenge to authority than a worker bee reproducing.

Bee colony
Six legs good...
Breeding is the sole prerogative of the queen bee, one that she clearly takes seriously since she will often lay her own weight in eggs every day. But given that most bees are female - males are only used for reproduction - why do the humble workers not lay their own eggs?

It had been thought bees were just well-behaved respecters of authority - the sort of attitude that in the human world could perhaps be encouraged with a swift, and strategically applied, Asbo.

Research led by Professor Francis Ratnieks, of the University of Leuven, in Belgium, has found some worker bees do, in fact, lay eggs. But such acts of sedition are immediately stamped out by fellow workers who kill the eggs by eating them. Forget Asbos, this is Queen Bee as King Herod.

Other insect groups, Mr Ratnieks found, were less effective in policing their workers - leaving it to the queen to do the killing - and as a result saw higher proportions of workers laying eggs.

But in the jackboot state of the honey bee hive, just 0.1% of workers stepped out of line, and spawned.

It's more like a communist-type approach, but done honestly
Dr Ivor Davis
It's hard not to have a grudging respect for such efficient law enforcement, says bee keeper and admirer, Dr Ivor Davis.

"You can see immediately that the female society - one that's focused on reproduction - is fairly ruthless but entirely efficient," says Mr Davis, who is president of the British Bee Keepers Association.

So might we, perhaps, glean a few lessons from the Order of the Beehive? That would require a re-adjustment to something like a collectivist model where everyone is working for the common good.

"It's a mistake to think of bees as individual organisms. To them, the colony is a single organism in whose best interests they act," says Mr Davis.

In the 20 years he's spent studying bees, he's often found himself comparing their habits to human society.

"It's more like a communist-type approach, but done honestly, rather than the inevitable corruption that tainted human communist states, because honey bees can't be corrupted. The workers have a sanction on the queen because they feed her on nectar and pollen. The more they feed her, the more eggs she can lay."

Liberals will find it a repungant model. The question is - would they be prepared to boycott their morning honey fix for such an ideal?


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This is not so much a case of female-dominated society maintaining order, rather it's more an example of each individual within the society doing their bit to deal with miscreants. It's similar to the way it used to be in this country when any adult wouldn't think twice about berating unruly kids in the street. Nowadays we're all too scared, fearing accusations of child abuse. Get out those rolling pins!
Dave F, Cheshire, U

I got stung by a bee the other day. 50 for a jar of honey. Sorry, I'll get my coat.
TS, Croydon, England

I've always found the social structure of insect colonies to be interesting, and I guess that everyone compares them to human social structures. I think that the 2 main differences between their and our societies are 1) They are committed to the survival of the society as a whole and are willing to make individual sacrifices for the good of the community, and 2) they are not afraid to punish those that step out of line. Maybe we could learn a bit from them...
Heather, Wolverhampton

This seems to be a clear case for the vigilante! The solution to the hoodie wearing scum is for local communities to stand against them and do what the Police won't/can't.
M Turner, Preston

We more or less follow that model (though a lot less than we used to!). Our Queen is at the top of the pile and everything we do as far as government and military is concerned is in her name and with allegiance to her. Whether or not we would want to expand that into every part of civic life though...
Bruce, Ayr

This shows that vegetarians who think that cruelty is just in eating meat are wrong. Unfortunately though this model of social behaviour is not going to transfer to the human world.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

You do wonder whether some people are worth anything to society, no matter how much time, attention and effort is thrown at them. Would a final eradication approach eventually lead to a better society? As harsh as it sounds and seems it would be the ultimate deterrent, however I can imagine most of the country declining, I could not see myself saying yes to a state killing of one of my sons. However there is the still the problem of discipline, which must lie at the doorstep of every parent, perhaps if more parents were brought to account for their ill disciplined children then society would be a better place.
Robert, London

What this research really teaches us about how to control the disruptives in human society is to not let them breed. After all if they don't then their potentially also disruptive children wont ever exist. Hurrah! I think you might want to check the Prof. Ratnieks isn't still at the University of Sheffield.
Rachel, London

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