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Out of Control
Chapter 2: HIVE MIND

The beehive beneath my office window quietly exhales legions of busybodies and then inhales them. On summer afternoons, when the sun seeps under the trees to backlight the hive, the approaching sunlit bees zoom into their tiny dark opening like curving tracer bullets. I watch them now as they haul in the last gleanings of nectar from the final manzanita blooms of the year. Soon the rains will come and the bees will hide. I will still gaze out the window as I write; they will still toil, but now in their dark home. Only on the balmiest day will I be blessed by the sight of their thousands in the sun.

Over years of beekeeping, I've tried my hand at relocating bee colonies out of buildings and trees as a quick and cheap way of starting new hives at home. One fall I gutted a bee tree that a neighbor felled. I took a chain saw and ripped into this toppled old tupelo. The poor tree was cancerous with bee comb. The further I cut into the belly of the tree, the more bees I found. The insects filled a cavity as large as I was. It was a gray, cool autumn day and all the bees were home, now agitated by the surgery. I finally plunged my hand into the mess of comb. Hot! Ninety-five degrees at least. Overcrowded with 100,000 cold-blooded bees, the hive had become a warm-blooded organism. The heated honey ran like thin, warm blood. My gut felt like I had reached my hand into a dying animal.

The idea of the collective hive as an animal was an idea late in coming. The Greeks and Romans were famous beekeepers who harvested respectable yields of honey from homemade hives, yet these ancients got almost every fact about bees wrong. Blame it on the lightless conspiracy of bee life, a secret guarded by ten thousand fanatically loyal, armed soldiers. Democritus thought bees spawned from the same source as maggots. Xenophon figured out the queen bee but erroneously assigned her supervisory responsibilities she doesn't have. Aristotle gets good marks for getting a lot right, including the semiaccurate observation that "ruler bees" put larva in the honeycomb cells. (They actually start out as eggs, but at least he corrects Democritus's misguided direction of maggot origins.) Not until the Renaissance was the female gender of the queen bee proved, or beeswax shown to be secreted from the undersides of bees. No one had a clue until modern genetics that a hive is a radical matriarchy and sisterhood: all bees, except the few good-for-nothing drones, are female and sisters. The hive was a mystery as unfathomable as an eclipse.

I've seen eclipses and I've seen bee swarms. Eclipses are spectacles I watch halfheartedly, mostly out of duty, I think, to their rarity and tradition, much as I might attend a Fourth of July parade. Bee swarms, on the other hand, evoke another sort of awe. I've seen more than a few hives throwing off a swarm, and never has one failed to transfix me utterly, or to dumbfound everyone else within sight of it.

A hive about to swarm is a hive possessed. It becomes visibly agitated around the mouth of its entrance. The colony whines in a centerless loud drone that vibrates the neighborhood. It begins to spit out masses of bees, as if it were emptying not only its guts but its soul. A poltergeist-like storm of tiny wills materializes over the hive box. It grows to be a small dark cloud of purpose, opaque with life. Boosted by a tremendous buzzing racket, the ghost slowly rises into the sky, leaving behind the empty box and quiet bafflement. The German theosophist Rudolf Steiner writes lucidly in his otherwise kooky Nine Lectures on Bees: "Just as the human soul takes leave of the can truly see in the flying swarm an image of the departing human soul."

For many years Mark Thompson, a beekeeper local to my area, had the bizarre urge to build a Live-In Hive -- an active bee home you could visit by inserting your head into it. He was working in a yard once when a beehive spewed a swarm of bees "like a flow of black lava, dissolving, then taking wing." The black cloud coalesced into a 20-foot-round black halo of 30,000 bees that hovered, UFO-like, six feet off the ground, exactly at eye level. The flickering insect halo began to drift slowly away, keeping a constant six feet above the earth. It was a Live-In Hive dream come true.

Mark didn't waver. Dropping his tools he slipped into the swarm, his bare head now in the eye of a bee hurricane. He trotted in sync across the yard as the swarm eased away. Wearing a bee halo, Mark hopped over one fence, then another. He was now running to keep up with the thundering animal in whose belly his head floated. They all crossed the road and hurried down an open field, and then he jumped another fence. He was tiring. The bees weren't; they picked up speed. The swarm-bearing man glided down a hill into a marsh. The two of them now resembled a superstitious swamp devil, humming, hovering, and plowing through the miasma. Mark churned wildly through the muck trying to keep up. Then, on some signal, the bees accelerated. They unhaloed Mark and left him standing there wet, "in panting, joyful amazement." Maintaining an eye-level altitude, the swarm floated across the landscape until it vanished, like a spirit unleashed, into a somber pine woods across the highway.

"Where is 'this spirit of the hive'...where does it reside?" asks the author Maurice Maeterlinck as early as 1901. "What is it that governs here, that issues orders, foresees the future...?" We are certain now it is not the queen bee. When a swarm pours itself out through the front slot of the hive, the queen bee can only follow. The queen's daughters manage the election of where and when the swarm should settle. A half-dozen anonymous workers scout ahead to check possible hive locations in hollow trees or wall cavities. They report back to the resting swarm by dancing on its contracting surface. During the report, the more theatrically a scout dances, the better the site she is championing. Deputy bees then check out the competing sites according to the intensity of the dances, and will concur with the scout by joining in the scout's twirling. That induces more followers to check out the lead prospects and join the ruckus when they return by leaping into the performance of their choice.

It's a rare bee, except for the scouts, who has inspected more than one site. The bees see a message, "Go there, it's a nice place." They go and return to dance/say, "Yeah, it's really nice." By compounding emphasis, the favorite sites get more visitors, thus increasing further visitors. As per the law of increasing returns, them that has get more votes, the have-nots get less. Gradually, one large, snowballing finale will dominate the dance-off. The biggest crowd wins.

It's an election hall of idiots, for idiots, and by idiots, and it works marvelously. This is the true nature of democracy and of all distributed governance. At the close of the curtain, by the choice of the citizens, the swarm takes the queen and thunders off in the direction indicated by mob vote. The queen who follows, does so humbly. If she could think, she would remember that she is but a mere peasant girl, blood sister of the very nurse bee instructed (by whom?) to select her larva, an ordinary larva, and raise it on a diet of royal jelly, transforming Cinderella into the queen. By what karma is the larva for a princess chosen? And who chooses the chooser?

"The hive chooses," is the disarming answer of William Morton Wheeler, a natural philosopher and entomologist of the old school, who founded the field of social insects. Writing in a bombshell of an essay in 1911 ("The Ant Colony as an Organism" in the Journal of Morphology), Wheeler claimed that an insect colony was not merely the analog of an organism, it is indeed an organism, in every important and scientific sense of the word. He wrote: "Like a cell or the person, it behaves as a unitary whole, maintaining its identity in space, resisting dissolution...neither a thing nor a concept, but a continual flux or process."

It was a mob of 20,000 united into oneness.