Surviving the Century: Bees

Bee Happy

Bee Happy by Treesha Duncan, on Flickr

On 21 November, Surviving the Century at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) asks how dependent human health is on the health of the animal populations around us. Four speakers will each put the case for an animal species that we simply can’t survive without. Here Martha Kearney puts the case for bees. What do you think? Add your comments at the bottom.

Can you imagine a world without bees? For many people that would simply mean a more boring breakfast as their toast would be deprived of honey. Delicious though that treat may be, the disappearance of bees would be far more significant than the loss of their amazing crop. The contribution made by honey bees in the pollination of crops is of critical importance to human food security and diversity, and the pollination of many other plant species helps to maintain wild plants and, consequently, wildlife diversity. This is often overlooked, yet honey bees – together with other pollinating insects – are essential to human survival.

In the UK it has been estimated that all insect pollinators contribute more than £400 million to the agricultural economy at farm gate prices. This probably represents in excess of £1.5 billion once the food reaches supermarkets. Honey bees are a significant contributor to this figure, and it has been suggested that this one species could contribute up to 50 per cent of the pollination value. In the USA it is estimated approximately one-third of the total human diet is derived directly or indirectly from insect-pollinated plants (fruits, legumes and vegetables). The almond crop is entirely dependent on honey bee pollination. Without honey bees, there would be no almonds. Numerous other crops are 90 percent dependent on honey bee pollination. Some of those crops include apples, avocados, blueberries, cherries, cranberries and sunflowers. Other crops such as cucumbers, kiwi fruit, melons and vegetables are also pollinated by honey bees.

The threat to bees is now well known and may well be the canary in the coalmine when it comes to our environment. While their demise is largely due to the varroa mite, bees have also suffered because of a loss of habitat, in particular lack of wildflowers.  I would also maintain that the bee has through the centuries been an extraordinary inspiration to humankind, which has been expressed in poetry and art: just look around at how many symbols of bees there are in everyday life, from beer cans to cosmetics. Bees are vital to humanity.

Martha Kearney is one of the BBC’s most respected journalists and currently  presents The World and One on Radio Four and The Review Show on BBC 2.  She is also a prominent and passionate apiarist and fronted a campaigning BBC4 documentary, Who Killed The Honey Bee?in 2009 to raise awareness of the plight of the world’s bee populations.

Noah’s Ark is a collaboration between Welcome Collection and ZSL. Book tickets for Surviving the Century online on the ZSL website.

Making your mind up

Decisions 2 by cuellar, on Flickr

Decisions 2 by cuellar, on Flickr

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I stood in the lunch queue, a string of anxious people behind me, the server tapping impatiently on the counter with his spoon, clock ticking down, minutes to go before I had to be at Wellcome Collection for the latest Packed Lunch talk. Yet I still couldn’t decide… what did I want for lunch?

The irony was not lost on me. This Packed Lunch was on decision-making.

Would I have fared any better had the speaker, Peter Ayton of City University, been next to me in the queue? A Professor of Psychology, Ayton studies human judgement and decision-making, and he said one thing that might explain my lunchtime dilemma: our reaction to choice.

You’d think that the more options we have the better able we might be to pick the one most suited to us. But we humans need things simpler than that. Ayton described an experiment where shoppers in a department store were offered different samples of jam to try and buy.  When 24 jams were offered, many people tried them, yet few bought them. But when just 6 jams were on offer, many more people followed through and bought a jar. The theory goes that when you have more variables to contend with, it actually makes you less likely to make a decision.

And we’re worse when re-evaluating a decision we’ve already made. Ayton told us of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. According to this behaviour, we find it difficult to cease the pursuit of a goal even if a better option comes along later, because we’ve already invested so much in the current course of action.

And it seems to take hold relatively early in life. In an experiment, Ayton’s team of researchers asked children to imagine that they had to eat their least favourite breakfast cereal in order to save up tokens for a toy reward. They were then told that on the last day, a kind Uncle gifted them the money to buy the toy, so they wouldn’t have to eat that last box. Would they still eat it? Younger children of 4-5 years old wouldn’t eat the final packet of cereal. But older children would. It’s the Sunk Cost Fallacy at work.

The behaviour is, as Ayton discovered in 1998, remarkably similar to a theory zoologists refer to as the ‘Concorde fallacy’. Coined by Richard Dawkins, it refers to the British and French governments continued funding for the supersonic Concorde aircraft, even after they realised it would never be economically viable.

One of Ayton’s biggest achievements was uncovering this unlikely synergy between the two completely separate fields of psychology and zoology. And it’s been a fruitful discovery, as Ayton says, there is much we can learn about human behaviour from studying that of animals.  Animals, he says, are “exquisitely adapted to their environment” – they only take risks (e.g. going for a risky food source) when they absolutely have to. Animals don’t tend to commit the Sunk Cost Fallacy, but humans do, and that’s what’s interesting.

During the talk, Packed Lunch host Dan Glaser wondered if this deleterious effect was the result of our having evolved to be self conscious and socially aware. Is this the reason for our irrationality? Here, Ayton revealed that it wasn’t just humans that are irrational. Bees do it too. Studies have shown that when presented with different flowers to feed from, bees showed a distinct preference for flower A over flower B. and flower B over flower C. Yet they also chose flower C over flower A!

“Bees have been bees for longer than people have been people, so irrationality is something that has evolved in different species,” said Ayton.

The question on everybody’s lips was, as a Professor of human judgement, is Ayton any better at decision making himself?

Sadly, the answer is no.

“Many people get into this field because they recognise their flaws. But we’re no better at decision making than anyone else. When I think about a decision, I see not only the options but all the fallacies I might commit!”

Seeing Myself See: Filming the event

It’s always a pleasure to cover an event with such a strong visual element; it makes the job of the filmmaker so much easier. Seeing Myself See had bright lights and bees, beautiful wooden instruments and crystallised bee flights – which not only looked great on camera, but were also clearly fascinating to the audience on the day. It was also very noisy, in the best possible way, so slightly less of a joy to edit it all together, but still fun.

The event was a very playful occasion that encouraged interaction as well as introspection, the idea being that people become more aware of the way in which they “see” the world. There was a particular focus on “sensory substitution”, replacing one sense with another. With the Seeing Instruments the colours of the user’s clothes were translated into music, whereas in the Mind Chair shapes are turned into touch.

My personal highlight, though, was the Bee Matrix. Whilst it definitely gave an insight into bee behaviour, what struck me most was the way in which it was developed in collaboration with primary school children and yet was producing genuinely novel scientific data – a potentially very interesting model for science education. It was also a success in keeping the bees contained, though I’m informed our thorough Events team had already appointed a “bee catcher” in the event of an escape when the box was opened to restock the “flowers”. Apparently they do stop flying in the dark so the lights are switched off during this process, but you can never bee too careful. (Sorry).

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