Humans vs Honeybees

On Darkness at Noon

Posted Mar 15, 2015

Source: Trezizi/Deviantart

Close to three quarters of a century ago—all of 13 years before William Golding’s Lord of the Flies came out, just 4 years before George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and just months before Pearl Harbor—Arthur Koestler’s dystopic novel, Darkness at Noon, was published in England.  The author would end badly: he’s remembered as the para-normalist, mini-Lamarckian responsible for The Case of the Midwife Toad, and as a vice president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society who took his own life.  But it was his difficult early experiences that offered the grist for this book.  Koestler spent 4 months in a Seville jail in Franco’s Spain; and he knew a number of Show Trial victims in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Besides, he knew something about bees.

The whole of Darkness at Noon takes place in prison: on the floor of isolation cell No. 404, 6-1/2 steps square; across from the pile of documents on the examiners' desks, and under the strong light bulbs in their examination rooms; down the badly lit spiral staircase that takes prisoners down to the depths. “In all the white-washed cells of this honeycomb in concrete,” 2000 men live, and some die, “walled into the cells of this bee-hive.”

Before his own walk down that spiral staircase, Nicolas Salmaonivch Rubashov ruminates on the collective.  An ex-Commissar of the People, Trade Delegation leader and veteran of the Bolshevik Revolution, he knows the doctrine of superindividualism well enough, and has put it into practice.  Manifestations of political divergences had to be erased—library shelves thinned out; volumes published by the Academy revised; old histories culled, and new histories drafted to take their place.  Portraits had to be taken down from walls overnight.  And noncompliant Party members had to be offed. In a nutshell: “The individual was nothing, the Party was all.”  Rubashov had been responsible for several liquidations, himself—a 19-year-old Party group member named Richard, who edited his propaganda too much; Little Lowey the longshoreman, who was denounced for his conscience; the stenographer, Arlova, who saturated Rubashov's office and his bed with her sisterly scent, dismissed for political untrustworthiness and shot in the back of the neck. “To settle a difference of opinion, we know of only one argument: Death.”

But in the end, being human, the first person singular starts to slip into Rubashov's conversations.  He knows well enough that the Party admits no privacy, not even inside a man’s skull; he understands that, to the committee, “I” is a suspect, unrecognized quality.  But the last word he taps on the wall of his prison cell is code for that one-letter word, “I.”  And in the first person singular, Rubashov confesses at his last trial: “I plead guilty to having placed the idea of man above the idea of mankind.”

Because people are not truly social.  As the honeybee expert, Tom Seeley—who worked with Ed Wilson, the great entymologist—knows better than anybody, the honeybees Koestler used to start and finish his book are among the great cooperators on the planet.  In every honeybee colony, tens of thousands of workers search out protected habitats—high tree cavities, or holes in rocks. They democratically “dance” as they scout out, and vote on, the best building spot.  And afterwards, those workers forage for pollen, feed the brood, control temperature and air circulation, build and defend the hive—sacrificing their viscera, and their lives, along with their barbed stings.

Because only the queen breeds.  Apis mellifera live in colonies of tens of thousands of workers, but no more than about 10 virgin queens.  The first of those virgins to emerge either leaves the hive in a swarm, or stays on and searches the other virgins out—after which they grapple and twist and ultimately fight to the death.  The winner goes on to mate with 10 to 20 drones, and stores up a lifetime supply of around 5 million sperm.   She will monotonously lay over a thousand eggs a day, over 100,000 eggs a year, and close to half a million eggs over the 2 or 3 year course of her life. But she will pheromonally suppress the development of the ovaries of every worker in the hive.

Making all of them parts of a sterile caste.



Koestler, Arthur.  1941.  Darkness at Noon.  London: Macmillan.

Seeley, Thomas.  2010.  Honeybee Democracy.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Betzig, L. L.  2014.  Eusociality in history.  Human Nature, 25: 80-99.

Betzig, L. L.  2009.  But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  Politics and the Life Sciences, 28: 102-105.