Most beekeeper know the value of a pollination contract. It’s a subject of vital importance to the professional beekeeper. It’s also a subject of vital importance to the professional bee. I find it amusing to talk with beekeepers who describe themselves as primarily pollinators or honey producers. Just how many almond flowers did that beekeeper visit that day? How much honey was the beekeeper holding in his crop? The bees are the producers. The bees are the pollinators. In contract law it’s important to know the prior history. The history for bees goes way back, because bees negotiated the original pollination contract millions of years ago. To get a look at what things might have been like we need to conjecture with what is, what we know was, and from that derive what might have been. So we look at the life of E04, a proto-hymenoptera to see how the first pollination contracts came about.
E04 lives in a time so distant it defies comprehension, in a place so far removed it is unrecognizable. She lives in a tropical forest in what will one day be Burma. E04 is tiny, barely 3mm across, but that does not mean she is insignificant. In E04 the habits of what was are broken and the patterns for what will be begin to show. She shares a common ancestry with the wasp, carnivorous flying hunters who have roamed the lands for millions of years longer than she. Wasps are eaters of the living, hunters armed with sting and bite. In her time as now they are sleek and deadly. E04, however, is different. Wasps and Bees both enjoy sweet juices, deriving their energy from sugars when possible. In this prehistoric landscape a common source of sugar is sap, but recently a change in the plant world has made way for a change in the insect world. The vast pine forests that have covered the continents depend on wind to transfer the pollen. To compensate for the random nature of wind the trees produce a thousand times more pollen than is needed. In this rainy forest in Burma, however, there is rarely wind without moisture. The nearby falls clog the air with moisture and pollen released on the wind rots on the ground more often than it drifts skyward to a neighboring tree. Wind pollination cannot work here, but the drive to live opens the doorway for a new behavior.
In this forest live tiny beetles. Ever hungry, ever scavenging these bugs can live on all manner of plant material, and it is not long before they discover that the pollen is edible. Chewing into the stamen the beetles devour the pollen and then move on. This act of destruction is not without benefit. The beetles, you see, are messy eaters. Their mandibles are clunky and they lack a way to clean themselves, so in their gluttony the pollen at the edges of their mouth is transferred from one flower to the next. Sometimes the pollen is in fact from the same species, and so the trees survive in the mists and the rain. In survival they adapt. With the passage of a few million years the first flowers appear, crude constructs which serve as an offering ground for pollen. The first flower petals are an offering of protection for the pollen and an enticement to the pollinators. Sheltering in the cupped leaves keeps the beetles dry and the pollen on long stalks could not be more conveniently placed for devouring by a restless beetle. In the heart of this proto-flower sap oozes. Now the stage is set for E04’s ancestors to change with the plants.
In the cycle of predator and prey the populations move in waves, and the current wave sees a glut of predators. Never afraid to feed on each other, the wasps have taken to cannibalism early. On this day though, a wasp can find nothing to kill, nothing to eat. She has learned that sap is sweet to chew, and the scent of sap in a flower draws her to it. Her jaws, made for eating meat, make short work of the flower. As she cleans herself, she chews a stamen – and swallows. Though she is made for digesting meat she is capable of surviving on pollen, and through this lean cycle she continues to feed on the sap and the stamen. Her children share this trait, and it is honed through thousands of lean years, millions of generations until we arrive at E04.
E04 still has the jaws of her great grandmothers, jaws made to kill. Her most striking departure cannot be seen without a microscope. Her ancestors sported spikes on their carparace for protection, her nearer ancestors had stiff hairs. E04’s hairs are stiff, and they branch like tiny trees. This makes perfect catch points for pollen, so that when E04 enters a flower she is coated, and even a tumultuous flight through the undergrowth cannot dislodge it all. These hairs make E04 a better pollinator by far than the wasps before her. The plants have continued their evolution, developing “sticky” pollen and a flower structure that places the sap, now nectar in the center of a ring of pollen stalks. The plants have evolved to make best use of unwilling pollinators but in E04 they have found a match and a cross species soul mate. She already favors a tongue to slurp nectar over jaws to chew pollen. With every visit those tiny branching hairs fulfill her end of the contract, transferring the plant’s DNA in return for sweet nectar and the lion’s share of the pollen. Future generations will sweeten the pot by practicing a relationship that while not strictly monogamous is no longer a one flight stand. They will return to the same type of flower over and over, reducing those messy cross species mishaps that so often end in failure.
Fundamentally inside Eo4 is different as well from her ancestors. Her distant cousins still roam the woodlands, their design largely unchanged. Like sharks the wasps endure, a testament to the efficiency of their design. E04 is no wasp now. She is a bee. One of her physiological changes drives a social change. At some point in the past E04’s ancestors developed a barbed stinger more suited to penetrating the hide of these annoying mammals that now cover the land. The barb helps keep her stinger firmly in place but it comes with a price – at times when she stings she cannot remove it. Tearing it loose tears her innards out. A solitary bee cannot afford to die and leave her brood, so this weakness has driven a change in how she (and others like her) live. At one time they made nests in holes in trees or nested in the mud, but now they craft tubes in which to raise their brood. Building a cluster of tubes together is more efficient but it has gone far beyond simple material efficiency in E04. Once a fierce defender of her nest, a solitary bee tolerating no interlopers, E04’s kind have learned to cooperate. They are not truly a colony, more of a co-operative. Hundreds of females build nests together, hanging their tubes of wax together. When E04 comes home after each flight it is to feed her larva – if she can find them. In the massive patch of cells it’s hard to sort out ten larva among the thousand, so E04 feeds the nearest larva, and relies on a social contract with her sisters that someone will do the same for her own. At times she can find her own and she always feeds them first. Millions of years from now her distant children will retain this behavior. Even in the orderly confines of the honeybee colony the workers will favor the daughters of their father over others.
New females that hatch in this co-op have an advantage – there’s at least one cell that they can already lay in – the one they just hatched from. The new females clean their cells and then lay claim to any other open cells by cleaning them as well. They must leave to mate and feed, but there may be other open cells to snatch when they return. E04 stores pollen for her brood in cells nearby. Other bees may eat it but she gathers it for her own. She doesn’t hesitate to take pollen from others to feed them. Among the sisters of this condominium colony there are already the signs of what is to come – a few females have been born who cannot lay eggs. Raised in a dearth, their ovaries never matured and these females, once good only for the eating, find a purpose. They have no larva of their own to care for, so they roam the cells feeding larva who remain. When their mothers return these “aunts” may skitter away but they’ll return to care for their foster brood. The results will be a boon for the co-operative. These aunts as well will defend their home and adopted brood to the death. One bee alone cannot afford to die but if others will care for and continue its work sacrifice becomes possible, even probable. In a few million years most of the females will be infertile, purposefully starved to create infertile workers. Changed too is the production of the drones – the males. Once every bee laid its own drones, one out of ten “wasted” on a male. Now E04’s kind will learn a new technique. The drone brood smell different. Just by the scent in the air E04 can tell if there are enough drones. If not, she will lay one. Time will remove as well the hostility between the layers and the caregivers. Time will hone the shape of her nest to its familiar hexagonal structure, and create colony from a co-op. These changes will drive others. E04’s children will develop other new behaviors as a result of living in proximity. The corpses of the dead will attract predators, predators that might threaten the co-operative, so these proto-bees will drag them far away. In a few million years her sisters will often leave the nest when it is time to die, reducing the work the co-operative must do.
This design will succeed, and E04’s children will push out across the globe, in doing so changing as they are forced to. They will become stouter so that they can carry more. They’ll lose the fighter plane aerodynamic of the wasp and trade them for a cargo plane functionality. The sepia will become a fine fur that makes the bees look hairy. In time they will come into contact with colder climates, and this will force the change that will define them. In these cold climates the flowers will die for weeks, months at a time. E04’s children have stored nectar in cells for generations, but it is in the same manner as the bumble bee – just enough to survive a few days. The bees forced to face a cold climate learn to store nectar not only in their own cells, but in the empty cells caused by a lack of pollen. The selfish drive to steal nectar causes the bees left in the co-op nest to fill their nectar crop. Then they transfer it to their own storage cells. In the process the sugar is broken down, the nectar deposited contains a little less moisture. In time this nectar will become the substance that gives these bees their name: Honey.
Back in the prehistory E04 goes about her business. She gathers pollen, eats sap, and makes her nest near others of her kin. These are tiny changes, so incremental and opportunity driven that they seem by chance. In E04’s time, however, these changes are enough to separate her from her wasp ancestors, enough to establish a contract with the plants flowers that will outlast the dinosaurs and survive the ice age to come. Enough to make her a bee.