Wednesday, March 24, 2010

To Bee Or Not To Bee

I had an interesting experience a few days ago while cruising the Internet.

There was some thread on one of the news blogs about "Africanized bees" who killed some unfortunate individual doing construction work in Florida; apparently he knocked down a tree where they were living. There was a YOUTUBE link in that thread to a TV program, probably British.

Give it a quick view; it's only five or six minutes long. (Go ahead; I'll wait.)

Well, we all remember seeing some nature film or another describing the life cycle of the European or American honeybee. They're born, they're little grubs who are fed honey by their flying sisters, they pupate, they become bees; first they care for their fellow grubs, then as they age, they fly out of the nest to seek nectar, to pollinate plants, and to generally bee all that they can bee. Eventually, after a couple of months, they grow old and die, to be replaced by their younger sisters. (Only the queen lays eggs, of course.)

Anyway. This short film on Youtube above that showed this scenario--but it was a European beehive in Japan. European bees were imported to Japan because they make twice as much honey per hive than do the native Japanese bees. They've adapted quite well to their new territory...except for one thing.

The giant Japanese hornet.

If you think of a honeybee as a sort of a cross between a pickup truck and a yellow cab--workaday, adapted to its function--then the adult, giant Japanese hornet is a cross between an F-22 and an armored helicopter. These things are huge compared to the bee, three times as big at five or six centimeters long and about twenty times as massive. In a film closeup, they really do appear to be something out of a Japanese monster movie. Terrifying, brightly colored, protected by a thick chitin armor that the bees cannot penetrate, with vicious mean nasty sharp jaws that you would not want to encounter if you were bug sized.

And these hornets have a hive too. Also filled with grubs. But unlike the bee grubs, they don't eat pollen and nectar and honey. These grubs eat meat.

Preferably the grubs of bees.

These hornet grubs, repulsive white pustules--"a white bag of fluid with jaws", as the film says--clack their jaws against the paper hive to tell their adult hive mates that they're hungry. So the hive mates, annoyed no doubt by the grub equivalent of whiny children, leave to go hunting. And their favorite prey these days are European bees.

A couple of dozen hornets find a beehive and invade it. The European bees, evolved to fight European bugs, fight the Japanese hornets in their unique European way: one at a time, trying to sting it. (One at a time has an advantage that once the target critter is dead, the rest of the bees stop sacrificing themselves.) However, while this might work on European invaders, they are "only lining up to be slaughtered" by the hornets.

The Japanese hornets move into the hive like armored Samurai warriors wading into a crowd of unruly peasants armed with wooden pitchforks, and quite mercilessly behead every single bee in the hive. It takes a dozen or so hornets three hours to kill 30,000 adult bees in the hive.

Once they've done that, they take the bee grubs back to their own paper hive and feed the bee grubs to their own hornet grubs. (Cut in closeup to grubs, munchmunchmunch. Yummy.)

What was interesting was the program then showed what happens when the hornets invade a Japanese bee hive. These native bees have been dealing with the giant hornets for millions of years, and they have a slightly different approach to hive defense. These Japanese bees are not so good at making honey, but they DO know how to defend the hive against these flying hornet monsters.

When these bees detect an arriving hornet, they don't go after it one by one like the European bees do. They swarm them.

But they don't sting them–a pointless exercise anyway, given the hornet's armor.

These bees jump on the invading hornets and buzz their wings. This raises their temperature to about 45 degrees C, which is to say, about 113 degrees F., considerably hotter than the ambient temperature. It turns out that the bees can tolerate up to 48 degrees C/118 F.

But the hornets can't. The thickness of their armor prevents them from cooling and they die, cooked.

Now it's very easy to anthropomorphize these poor bees and to root for them against the evil invading hornets. What the hell, I will anyway: Yaaay for the bees.


Every herd animal, be it bees or wildebeest or buffalo or whatever, needs a predator to keep its numbers from growing overlarge. Wildebeest have lions; buffalo had Indians and/or sabertooths; and bees, I guess, have hornets. (Besides, a bee is nothing but a hornet that evolved to eat nectar.)

I thought about this movie a few nights ago, during dinner--since I worked late, I stopped at Uno's and had shrimp scampi. I was munching on a boiled shrimp (about as close to grub as I get in my top-of-the-food-chain-American-diet) (and, yes, they were yummy), and again it struck me, yeah, this is Mother Nature. This is Evolution in Action, Survival of the Fittest, "nature red of tooth and claw." Mother Nature is a bitch, a viscious monster who conceives children through rape, feeds babies through butchery, and ensures the survival of the entire biosphere by decreeing a death sentence on every single creature within it. And it has been this way ever since the first microbe discovered that it could do better by engulfing and devouring its neighbor.

How do we fit this true image of bloodyminded killer nature with the Christian idea of "lions laying down with the lamb" in a pre-fallen world, and presumably in a post-apocalyptic world? If lions lay down with lambs, isn't that a death sentence for the lions? They gotta eat too.

Some months back I wrote an essay about what I thought of evolution: a true idea, yes, which has its place in the science classroom, but not the political science classroom. A human society, a city, based on survival-of-the-fittest-the-devil-take-the-hindmost becomes a Nietzschean nightmare where rapists woo at swordpoint, robber knights steal every dime from the peasants, alpha males keep hareems, women are sex slaves, beta males are neuter, and all but the masters are slaves.

How do we reconcile this image of nature-as-it-is with Man-as-he-is? Fallen man, it seems to me, is indistinguishable from man who is in a state of nature, treating his fellow human as he would any prey to be killed and eaten. Does it not indeed seem that this would imply that what made Adam the first human was not his eating of the apple, falling from paradise into monstrosity, into a different image, Adam eating an apple that makes him more than a mere animal? Something that ceases to be a beast and becomes the Image of God? (Okay, okay, rather than eating an Apple of Life, he has God breathing into his nostrils. Different image, but same effect.)

I argued recently with another one of these disgusting Serbia-is-God's-Land types on line, contending his view that the Muslims at Srebrenica 'got what they had coming to them.' How was the Serbs' behavior at Srebrenica different than the Japanese hornets' behavior toward the bees? The Serbs were of course morally repugnant, but they were repugnant because we're more than mere animals.

Or are we?

I'm still trying to figure this one out.

- - - - - - - - -

I sent an earlier version of the above to a friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous. He's a philosophy Ph.D. candidate at a major Catholic university. He sends the following:

Just a few quick observations. I haven't read a great deal about the question, but understand that it has been much discussed in theology in the last century. Going off of my own knowledge:

First of all, I won't ever set foot in Japan, not even to change airplanes. I am a major stinging-insect-phobe. If there are 6-cm (three-inch!) hornets flying around, then sayonara Japan. Cicada killers give me the willies as is. And they're not even hive insects, so they're not aggressive.

Insects are not rational creatures. They have the appetitive and nutritive soul, not the rational soul. I know that sounds kind of clinical, but it's a deep theological and philosophical truth. They are not rational actors, do not have the telos of rational beings, and thus I for one have never been the least bit troubled by nature being 'red in tooth and claw.' We know that this fact about nature predates the Fall, because of predatory dinosaurs.

Biological creatures live off of biological matter. Predatory animal biological creatures live off of the meat of other animal biological creatures. Because this biological fact predates the fall, I don't see how it could be anything but part of the Divine design. Am I missing something? What may be part of the fall is the fact that natural creatures don't obey us and that they bother us.

The Scriptural phrase "the lion laying down with the lamb" refers to the eschaton [i.e., the World after the Second Coming and Final Judgment of Man]. The question of whether animals survive into the eschaton has been debated; Aquinas, of course thinks they don't since they don't have the rational soul. If animals do survive into the eschaton, they presumably wouldn't need to eat. In the state of glory they would presumably be sustained by the Divine glory and not need food. My understanding is that we will be sustained by the Divine glory in the eschaton.

If the phrase "lion laying down with the lamb" is just an analogy, then it refers to human relationships being restored in the eschaton, all humans being in perfect communion with God, angels, and each other. How that would apply to animals I don't know, since the Scriptures don't discuss the eschatological state of animals, just refer in general to the New Jerusalem. This suggests that there will be more than simply us, God, and angels in Heaven; but I don't know how that would work. It's a mystery I don't understand.

= = = = = = = = = = =

That's a thought. We know from St. Disney that "All dogs go to heaven", except of course for pit bulls who kill little old ladies. And Chihuahuas. A heaven under a just God cannot have chihuahuas in it.

But seriously, I would assume that not only are there animals in heaven, there are ALL animals in heaven, as the glory and imagination of God is as manifested in His molding of, say, the great whale, the baluchatherium, the stegosaurus (complete with thagomizer), or my personal favorite, the duck billed platypus (proof that God must smoke weed occasionally) as it is in his creation of the Paragon of Animals. ("What a piece of work is Man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, ....") I have to imagine that one of the Mansions that make up God's House is the real Jurassic Park, although lacking, I trust, the need to use lawyers sitting on toilets to feed the T-rex. (Unless they get them on consignment from Hell, which I presume has a local surplusage.)

I suppose that in THIS world, where the eschaton has not yet been immanentized, an animal evolved to be meat (say, the wildebeest) would have just enough of ratio to know that its end purpose is ultimately to be meat for something else, and that they're OK with that, and that they understand that the pride of lions that follows the herd are there to keep the herd from growing overlarge.

(Dr. Temple Grandin, the famous autistic cattle-person, says that cattle 'know' that they are meant to become burgers and that all they want is that, when the time comes, for the transition from on-the-hoof to on-the-bun to be over with quickly and as painlessly as possible.)

I also have heard that people who have undergone predator attacks and survived, such as an attack by a lion, experience a very strange phenomenon: they don't feel the 'chomps' of the predator, as if the body anesthetizes itself at this key moment. I remember reading that something like that happened to the poet Byron, who remarked later that such a phenomenon must be 'a gift of a loving God.'

So who knows?

All I know is this: I'm not about to go vegan any time soon. So if I'm not, I may as well let the hornets bee. As it were.

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Keep it clean for gene.