The Sins of the Bumblebees, Part 1: Stealing

The other day, over at the online Bible study that Quilly is running, the discussion turned to the origin and meaning of sin.

(Yes, Mr. Squirrel. Again. Religious persons trying to solve the “sin” problem are just like Bullwinkle trying to pull the rabbit out of that damned hat. The trick never works, but they keep at it anyway. I sympathize.)

The question came up: is the urge to sin innate in humans, or is it planted there by, you know, the red-skinned guy with the horns, the hooves, and the pitchfork. No, sit down, Hellboy, I’m not talking about you.

I argued that sin must be innate, because we humans are descended from other creatures, and the lives of those other creatures are full of sex, lies, and videotape. OK, maybe not videotape. Or DVDs, either, if you must know. I confess, the next beetle I see with a microphone or a camera will be the first. Despite what you’ve heard about insects making their fortunes in porn. But, said I, I could tell a tale of sin among the bumblebees that would well and truly wrinkle your nose.

They didn’t believe me.

And, truth be told, they were right not to believe me. I don’t have a tale to tell. I have two, one (the one below) on the sin of thievery, and another on the sin of envy. So far.

Yes, bumblebees really will steal. Because they get lazy just like everybody else. (Hey, I can add “sloth” to the list!) The situations in this story are based on real scientific observations of organisms in nature. Well, OK, maybe not Snapdragon International, but … oh, read the story. See for yourself.

The tale told below was originally posted here.


STEAL, v. To remind those who have of the existence of those who have not.

    The inventor of the flower was a genius. He or she – the designer’s identity has not come down to us – saw megatons of pollen that desperately needed to get shipped from one plant to another, and a huge, idle crowd of bugs wandering from place to place begging for handouts. Our hero splashed some paint on some leaves, hung a few balloons, placed a juice bar at the deliveries dock for visitors who were attracted by the advertising and came with a sack of pollen, and presto: UPS (Universal Pollen Service) was born. Simple, elegant, and everybody won.
    Trouble was, of course, that all bugs were not created equal. Some were better couriers than others – and some, through ignorance, laziness, perversity, or a lucky break in size and shape, simply snuck in for the drinks and out without leaving so much as a tip. In the early days, this was OK, the job got done and there was plenty for all. Inevitably, though, the marketplace got crowded, competition increased, and words like “freeloader” entered the vocabularies of botanical boardrooms.
    The CEO and CFO of Snapdragon International watched the weakening stock prices of “open access” flower companies, and thought they saw a way to increase shareholder values. “Redesign our blossoms”, they ordered, “so that only the most efficient pollen carriers can get to the bar.”
    They did, and it worked. Labor productivity skyrocketed, as did Snapdragon International’s meadow share. Wages went up for the workers who could turn the tricks of the new posies, and the managers all got huge salary increases and hefty bonuses. Slums developed around the snapdragon stands, and beetles in rags were seen begging spare change in the business district and pushing shopping carts through the streets among the new luxury condos, but this hardly mattered.
    Until the day when the President of the Bumblebees Union buzzed the executive offices demanding why, after all those years of bargaining in good faith and making all those onerous concessions in work rules and loading rates for the sake of the firm, her workers were not getting paid. An investigation revealed all: destitute insects, tipped off by disgruntled members of a rival labor organization (Allied Federations of Lepidoptera), were breaking into the backs of the flowers and stealing the nectar!
    At this point, management was too deeply committed to its developments in bloom technology to change strategies; besides, an attempt to retrofit to “open access” mode would have caused a market stampede. So they invested in security measures, guarding the flowers with barricades, barbed wire, and ants armed with mace and stingers.
    To no avail: the thieves circumvented all the security and the nectar kept disappearing. There were ugly confrontations, leading to riots and loss of life, all of which was, naturally, reported in the grassroots networks. A wave of selling hit Wallflower Street. The CFO had no choice but to ask the Bumblebees for wage concessions, which prompted first a work slowdown and, finally, a full-blown strike.
    Snapdragon International wilted. Its assets were acquired by Burbee, which maintained Snapdragon’s more glamorous products through tissue culture and genetic engineering. Snapdragon’s managers were last seen, shopping carts in hand, standing in line with the roaches and fruit flies at the Magnolia Juice and Pollen Bread Kitchen. Except for the CEO and CFO, who were hired to head the Advanced Blossom Design subsidiary of the Orchid Conglomerate.

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2006, 2008 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Bastiaan J. D. Meeuse of the University of Washington, who introduced me to the field, and allegorical possibilities, of floral pollination biology.


  1. Here’s the problem with the tale. It assumes that stealing is a sin. As much as it would seem like the obvious answer is yes, I think the question of sin continues to fail because obviously, not all people agree on what constitutes a sin in the first place. And you can argue that the vast majority of people agree that something like murder or theft is a sin, but it’s like a very powerful poison that only needs a little bit to work.

    But for what it’s worth, I agree with you. Biology is littered with examples of murder and theft. There’s a certain species of monkey that will go on a raid, kill the males and kidnap the females, and then murder the children of the females. And the females mourn their children. Meanwhile, if you look at the number of murders done by bio. fathers vs. stepfathers vs. bio. mothers vs. stepmothers, the children are in the most physical danger with the stepfather. And if Lucifer is messing with the affairs of monkey’s too, it makes for some uncomfortable questions, such as why, and whether humans aren’t really that special a species in God’s eyes that he’d allow Satan to interfere with them too.

  2. Lisa, a proper response to this might take half of WordPress’s remaining available bandwidth (without bringing theology into the mix), and we might still wind up with a goose-egg. Sorry, the Devil made me do it :-P.

    On this Earth, most kinds of creatures are solitary, and thus perfectly selfish. Questions of “self” and “other” do not arise, because there is no “other” to be considered, except as a mate or a competitor.

    Members of a social species, however, are constantly suppressing aspects of “self” in order to support the society, which, over the long term and for that species, gives better individual survival and reproduction chances than solitude. (Yes, that means that the “godly life” is actually the most, not the least, selfish. Reminds me of the evangelical preacher who entitled his proselytizing speeches “Maximum Sex”. Another time.)

    In our species, that suppression consists mostly of learned behavior that overrides our normal, and ancient, selfish tendencies. Sin, in this view, is the selfish behavior that pops out despite what we’ve learned. The identification of specific behaviors as “sins” changes over time, because the behaviors that promote the success of the society change with the conditions in which the society finds itself: an action that was “good” in 1908 might be deadly in 2008 because its context has changed.

    The bumblebee that steals nectar from a flower is acting selfishly, and is hurting the “others” (her hive) by failing to bring home all the goodies (pollen as well as undigested nectar), and by failing to propagate the plant species that is supporting the whole operation, even if it does have a flower that’s a pain to process (bumblebees have actually been known to get fatally stuck trying to pollinate flowers of the “butter and eggs” plant – which is the “redesigned blossom” of the story).

    By the criteria I’ve written about here, the “stealing” bumblebee has committed a sin. The only element missing from the religious definition of sin is that of volition, of a conscious choice to act selfishly against social training. I venture to suggest, that particular prized possession of humanity is less special, less exclusive, than we think it to be.

  3. I’m with Lisa, dude. I see no sin, but adaptation of the flower to allow the best pollinators access to the pollen. When I took animal behavior classes, ugh, there is a hierarchy as to how much help a “child” can recieve from related females. It was surprising the amount given at the expense of themselves. However, I wouldn’t really call that “good” or selfless. It just is beneficial to the group.

  4. But do the bumblebees fail to bring home the ill-gotten pollen? Bumblebees being a part of a social species, it’s actually a lot harder to shed the whole social organism than just saying you’re done with it. After all, it may not be done with you. Not knowing a lot about bumblebees, this risks being quite anthropomorphic, but what does a bumblebee actually do with pollen if it decides it doesn’t want to donate it to the colony? I can understand a bee arriving with loads of pollen and making up it’s little dance that says, “I found this a long way away. Wouldn’t be worth the trip.” and then contributing the pollen anyway so they can be hailed as a hero (look, this bee traveled so far and risked so much, and it’s going to help us all). And certainly that’s selfish in a different way, but it contributes to the hive’s stores, and nobody is complaining.

    Apart from that, if you are correct that sinning means to act selfishly, and if those who act more in consideration of the group are the more selfish, then the next logical conclusion is that sin is indeed inherent. Either way, it seems we are doomed to act selfishly, and therefore, we have all sinned.

  5. Amber, the sin is not in the flower adapting itself to a more efficient pollinator regime (although an analogy to modern-day gekkos is possible, and if I told you that I wasn’t thinking about that possibility while I was writing the post, I’d be lying), but in the insects bypassing those floral adaptations. Kinda like sneaking a soda out of the fridge after you’ve been told you can only have one if you ask nicely, and you’d better have finished your homework first.

    Lisa, the thieving bumblebees, by stealing the nectar from the backs of the flowers, don’t get any pollen from the flowers from which they’ve stolen, and so can’t bring any home. Presumably, they make up the deficit from flowers from which it’s easier to get both nectar and pollen (the “open access” blossoms). But a lot of other insects can access those flowers too, so the yield per unit effort will be less, and that will stress the hive.

    Looks to me like bumblebees don’t have foraging dances, or at least none as sophisticated as those of the honey bee.

    we are doomed to act selfishly, and therefore, we have all sinned. Precisely. With that line, any seminary in the world would give you an A for the day. Those who navigate life more successfully have worked out a positive strategy for coping with this fact. The strategy attributed to Jesus of Nazareth is, of course, the central feature of the cult that grew up around his memory.

  6. Gotcha. Something in my neck popped over the weekend, and since then I’ve been trying to find enough painkillers to make me see little bumblebees. So far, no luck. Please pardon having to ruin a cool story with spelling it out. 🙂

    Yeah. A for the day, D- overall course grade. 😉

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