By Tom Hutt
All right! Enough already! I’ve been following this “how does smoke effect the bees” thing since I started keeping bees and haven’t found an answer, to my satisfaction, that offers any real insight at all. Oh, I’ve read volumes of technical and scientific theory describing the effect of smoke on bees at the pheromone and chemical level, listened to beekeepers personal opinions and have added to that pile myself. “It disperses the bees, tends to confuse them, drives them away, directs them, makes them gorge on honey, masks odors, counters the alarm pheromone, yada, yada, yada…” All that may be good enough for a casual working of the bees but I’ve always sensed there was more to it. It had to be simpler than all the heady theory and intellectual speculation that has been bandied about for the past couple of centuries. While all this speculation reflects the chemical / mechanical effect at the moment of smoke impact, none of it deals with what is happening on a conscious level. Yes, bees are conscious as every living thing is on some level. All of the currently accepted theory describes what the result of smoke is on bees at the internal chemical level but falls short of explaining what occurs at the thinking level of the bee. I am not inferring that bees think like us. They think like bees but think none the less. This brings in an added dimension as to why the bees react the way they do when smoke gets in their eyes.
All species must prioritize any action if they are capable of more than one function. From the simplest forms of life to the most complex we must prioritize our lists of tasks, each of which may require different skills. We cannot do everything that we are capable of doing at the same time. To do this would be so inefficient as to cause an extraordinary waste of energy, so much so it would inevitably lead to the extinction of that species. The super organism we call the colony, exhibits a clear and organized prioritization of the tasks required to sustain efficiency. Specific duties, whether learned or genetically programmed, are assigned to the different casts of bees by age and gender. While each is capable of more than one task, they are not carried out simultaneously. Tasks are prioritized to attain efficiency. Just like us! Bees, as all species, when carrying out a priority task, holds other capabilities aside until those resources are needed. Necessity itself can reassign or force a change in priority. As an example: you are watching the boob tube in your slippers and PJ’s while sipping a nightcap getting ready for bed so you can make it to work on time tomorrow. This is your most pressing priority. Suddenly, you smell something burning and notice there is smoke coming in from under your front door. Do you think your priorities would change? Would you switch from getting some sleep to being wide awake and focusing on survival as the new priority? You bet you would. Not that you would forget what you had to do before but you would replace it with action that is compatible with the new stimulus.
This, as simple as it sounds, is what a smoker does to a colony of busy bees. It changes the priorities of all of the bees at the conscious level. Guards cease guarding, nurses cease nursing, the dead are undoubtedly left behind. Even the returning foragers hover at the entrance while assessing the next move instead of entering immediately and I would venture to say that the queen even stops laying. All these actions of the entire colony are rarely theorized by anyone concerning the effects of smoke. We tend to focus solely on the guards. The reason this change in immediate priorities is of such importance, is that it defines the honey bee as more than a limited creature that only reacts because of the masking of a pheromone or chemical. That, on face value, implies that the honey bee is no longer able to do what it was doing (smoke masking the alarm pheromone) and is so limited that it can do nothing else until the circumstances change back to normal. What I see actually happening is a reprioritization of the tasks that the entire colony was undertaking. I believe this to be a consciously motivated result brought about by a forced change in immediate, environmental circumstances which is smoke. They, the entire colony, simply switch into survival skills, not mechanically or chemically driven, but consciously. I offer the following logic as an indicator of proof. When we use too much smoke or have overstayed our welcome in the inspection of a hive, the bees catch on, change priorities again, and let you know right away. If this was a pheromone masking thing, it would be “the more smoke the better” but that’s not the case as we all know.
So, the next time your introducing yourself with smoker in hand, just remember; “you can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” We are doing no more or less than tricking the bees into switching priorities. They simply “decide” to reprioritize because of impending conditions. I offer the opinion that they do think on some level, however controversial that may be to say. Oh, and thanks for deciding to make reading this blog a priority. I just know you were busy doing something else important!