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Greene: Beehive Politics

(Host) With election season coming to a close, commentator Stephanie Greene, a freelance writer who lives on the family farm in Windham County, has a great use for all those political signs.

(Greene) I insulate my beehives with old political signs.

It may seem kind of heartless, stapling someone's high hopes for office onto the sides of my insect high-rises, but I think it's oddly appropriate - given that throughout history, scientific thought has often been forced to conform to current political agendas, and more importantly, to flatter those in power.

High time to turn the tables, I say.

Although Aristotle wrote extensively about bees, and often with great accuracy, he didn't go in much for bees as a political metaphor. But Pliny The Elder, of the first century AD, did, positing that a hive ran a sort of election to select the best king, and the losers would be killed.

Well, that's ancient Rome, for you.

Christian writers have long idealized the beehive's productivity and cooperation as a symbol of selfless love. The fifth century theologian, Saint Augustine, even believed that bees had no sex.

And for generations, court favorites fell all over themselves likening the productivity and order of the hive to that of whoever happened to be in power.

Mind you, observers generally thought that the large, elegant bee being waited upon, fed and groomed was a male. Not until 1669 did the Dutch scientist Jan Swammerdam announce that the so-called King Bee did, in fact, have ovaries.

And a hasty political about-face was engineered.

In the late 19th century, early Communists claimed the structure and function of the beehive as the ideal model for a perfect society. A system of seamless cooperation, it put the good of the many above that of individuals. The means of production was owned by the workers.

Well, not entirely. All these metaphors get a little tricky.

Take the drones. At this time of year, things are not going well for them. Since their sole function in the beehive is to mate with the virgin queen in the spring, they've lounged around all summer eating while everyone else was hard at work laying in honey and pollen for the winter. Now the drones are being kicked out of the hive by the female workers.

With that in mind, Tickner Edwards wrote in 1908, that the hive was a perfect object-lesson of what socialism, carried out to its last and sternest conclusions must mean... The rule that those who cannot work, must not live, is applied with ruthless consistency', he said.

Edwards also took a pretty dim view of the queen. Far from being the hive's mastermind, or even ruler, she was described as being stupid and docile with a beautiful body but utterly in thrall to her own impulses and passions.

Recent beehive theorizing likens drones to the 1%, living off the work of others, producing nothing.

There are also those who say the queen's mating flight is a promiscuous debauch by an insect floozy.

And so it goes.

I wonder what my bees would make of all this projecting. I guess they're too busy working what's left of the asters to notice.

They like having insulated hives, though.

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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