Last winter, researchers discovered that ants practice first aid.
Their first aid is much different than the type you and I expect to receive when we hear that otherwise dreaded, but suddenly comforting siren. The injured ant gives the prognosis: if she – yes the worker ants are female – has a good chance to recover, she lies still. If she thrashes about wildly, the paramedic ants will move along and abandon her to die. The injured ant that lies still, they will carry back to the nest, where she will be nursed to health.
Loss of a limb or two is grounds for admittance into the ant hospital.
Have you ever seen a squirrel or a rabbit do this kind of behavior? A squirrel carrying a fallen comrade off the street, across the lawn, and back up the tree? And, while dogs are man’s best friend, the society portrayed in “Lady and the Tramp” is just human culture superimposed upon an imaginary canine world.
Since becoming a beekeeper – if you can call what I do beekeeping – I have been astounded to learn the following reality. Since the average life-span of a worker bee is six weeks, the honey that bees make from spring blossoms – bees don’t need to eat honey in the spring – is actually being saved for the benefit of the colony in the winter, which is long after they have died.
In human terms, this is not like providing an inheritance for your children or grandchildren. Instead, it’s like starting savings bonds for your great, great grandchildren.
This colony-first behavior is termed eusociality. And since it is so rare in nature – only a few species, debatably including humans, live this way – and since it contrasts with the otherwise common, highly individualistic, survival-of-the-fittest pattern, eusocial behavior presented an evolutionary puzzle for scientists spanning at least a century after Charles Darwin.
In other words, biologically-speaking, what would make a creature willing to “lay down his life for his friends?”
Recently, geneticists believe they have solved the problem. Genetically, a mother bear will lay down her life for her 50 percent genetically identical cub. But genetically, worker bees share 75 percent of their genetic material with the queen and with each other. So they will lay down their lives for their sisters, tens of thousands of whom have not yet been born.
From this angle, bees are more evolutionarily advanced than bears. But, of course, humans, who are biologically closer to bears, often exhibit altruistic social behavior like bees. And, bees, who, even though they fly and have six legs, but contemplate neither their own lives nor the life of their colony, are less advanced than humans.
Looking into a new year, neither bears nor bees need resolve to improve. Yet humans continually fall short of even their own expectations.
Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.