About 6,000 bees arrived at my home last weekend, and they were not pleased. Two starter colonies — 3,000 to a box, each with a queen — had been trucked up from Georgia, and my new bees were as pissed as any mess of critters could be.
As beekeeper, my job is to move these two mini-colonies and their queens from their traveling cages into a pair of cheery yellow beehives, their new homes. Along the way, I noticed how colonies of angry insects have striking similarities to human mobs. Bees who are buzzed on hormones are kind of like Tea Partiers drunk on rage. Both would also fly apart were it not for a Big Momma in their midst. Bees have queens; Tea Partiers have Sarah Palin.
Both species of mobs have a leader who visibly manipulates them, even though the real power lies with mysterious figures behind a cloud of smoke. When my bees are hungry, I give them honey water. When Tea Partiers need a little sugar, corporate heavies like Exxon and Philip Morris reportedly succor them. Neither mob seems to care, so long as they're fed.
But there are some even more subtle parallels between bee colonies and human hive-minds. Each new box of bees comes with its own queen, ensconced in her own little compartment about the size of a fat finger. The queen is protected in this cage with inside a cage. She has to be isolated right now, because her subjects would kill her.
Like many mobs, control is all about pheromones. When my new bees were hatched, they were part of another massive colony, under another monarch. So, they hate their new queen, because she doesn't smell like their old matriarch.
My bees gnaw frantically at a plug of sugar in a little cage that separates them from the queen. By the time they've consumed the candy, with any luck, they'll have fallen under her spell. And then, the hive will take on that admirable order of a little totalitarian state, replete with the xenophobic rage you see in other closed clusters.
Away from a hive, a honeybee is very sweet. You can pick her up and move her at will. But near a hive, as part of a mob, bees get mean. And what they hate even more than a bear (or boorish humans not hidden by smoke) are other bees. Like rival neighborhood gangs, hives harbor a permanent rage against colonies next door. And hives without strong queens will be ravaged by their neighbors, who'll steal their honey and starve their young.
So, I like to imagine Sarah Palin as a kind of hormonal monarch for the misbegotten. But the future bodes ill for her and all mob queens. Queens are permitted to live only if they smell good and increase their flock. When an old queen dries up, her subjects turn on her. They shove her out of the hive with a handful of retainers, probably to her death. To complete her humiliation, as the old girl fades, she's tricked into laying successors in a royal race to rule — which is won when a newborn queen stings all her larval rivals to death.
Those who live by the mob perish by it, too. Which is fine for these insects that make our lives sweeter; in humans, all it makes is more bitterness.