How sweet it is!

Apis mellifera, the common honeybee, seems to have originated in Africa and spread from there to Europe and Asia. Moving into temperate climates required major behavioral change that led to honey hoarding and ability to form a winter cluster.

European honeybees are half-tame, probably because beekeepers selected for lower levels of aggressiveness. People collect honey from African honey bees, but have never domesticated them, so the optimal strategy for African honey bees is to go down fighting. Which they do: they’ll chase you for a mile once they get their dander up.

This has probably been going on for a long, long, time. It may well go back before anatomically modern humans. I say that because of the greater honeyguide, which guides people to beehives in Africa. After we take the honey, the honeyguide eats the grubs and wax. A guiding bird attracts your attention with wavering, chattering ‘tya’ notes compounded with peeps and pipes. It flies towards an occupied hive and then stops and calls again. It has only been seen to guide humans.

I would not be surprised to find that this symbiotic relationship is far older than the the domestication of dogs. But it is not domestication: we certainly don’t control their reproduction. I wouldn’t count on it, but if you could determine the genetic basis of this signaling behavior, you might be able to get an idea of how old it is.

Honeyguides may be mankind’s oldest buds, but they’re nasty little creatures: brood parasites, like cuckoos.

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16 Responses to How sweet it is!

  1. Ron Pavellas says:

    From the work and writing of Bernd Heinrich (“The Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds”) it seems that raven has aided wolf and man-as-hunter.There is strong evidence that raven shows the hunter (wolf or man) the location of large prey from its lofty and far-seeing position, in order to share the bounty of the successful hunt.

    Raven is a major figure in the mythology of many cultures: Athabaskans and other original peoples of the western North American continent; Germanic peoples, including ancient England and the Nordic countries; the Celts; and, there is brief mention of Raven in The Talmud and The Qur’an.

  2. MikeP says:

    Now the situation is much more interesting that honey badgers are apparently not involved.

    In the New World we have the situation where the escape (actually, the probable release) of a few African queens in the fifties has led to the wholesale replacement of docile imported European honey bees with aggressive “africanized” bees. For the longest while it was believed that the aggressiveness would be diluted out by European genes as the African genes spread out from the release point in Brazil, but that hasn’t happened. By the way, don’t capitalize the specific name.

  3. Jim says:

    When I was a kid I lived on Guam for five years. The bees there are very aggressive compared with the placid bees I was used to in the states. I learned that as soon as you saw one – get away. Once I accidentally ran my bike into a cocanut tree with a bee hive in it. They chased me for about 500 feet all the way back to my home and stung me all over my body.

  4. hbd chick says:

    @greg – “But it is not domestication: we certainly don’t control their reproduction.”

    it is domestication, but you’re looking at it the wrong way ’round. clearly Apis m. has domesticated us, selecting for the clever humans who have figured out how to follow them to the hives and so benefit (reproductively speaking) from all those extra calories. (~_^)

  5. Anon says:

    I wonder what kind of adaptation evolves against brood parasites and what are the fitness costs?

    • MikeP says:

      Among sphecoid wasps there are certain behaviors that have evolved against the several different cleptoparasites that may attack their nests. Among these are temporary nest closures. These delay the mother wasp, of course, by the amount of time that it takes to make the closure. In some sand wasps (a group of sphecoid) the female goes further and constructs false entrances to the nest every time she temporarily seals it to throw off cleptoparasites.

    • Otto says:

      I’ve always found the mafia hypothesis interesting:

      What an interesting phenomenon – looking the other way (when you are being literally cuckolded) is itself adaptive for the little reed warbler, given the circumstances

      Is it wrong to imagine if such a phenomenon could ever apply to human groups?

      • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

        It is interesting that two species that engage in symbiotic relationships are parasites.

      • Anon says:

        I find it extremely interesting why humans do not engage in such behavior. Ducks for example lay eggs into other duck’s nests. Why humans are not having children and giving them up for an adoption? Especially, considering that there are waiting lists for newborn adoptions…

      • misdreavus says:

        “Why humans are not having children and giving them up for an adoption? Especially, considering that there are waiting lists for newborn adoptions…”

        Are all of your comments this painfully obtuse?

  6. Anon says:

    Brood parasitism must be an huge mystery to Ron Unz…

  7. observer says:

    OT: Another victory for the germ theory:

    Maybe in another 20 years they’ll consider looking into arthritis…

    “One of the UK’s most eminent spinal surgeons said the discovery was the greatest he had witnessed in his professional life, and that its impact on medicine was worthy of a Nobel prize.”

    Hmm… yeah.

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