Via Skepchick I found this blog on Wired about bees as a superorganism. I’m not going to comment on it really, as it pretty much speaks for itself (also, I haven’t quite made up my mind about how useful the “superorganism” idea is), but! The author refers to a scientist (a honeybee expert, it seems) saying this:
…the worker behavior of honeybees. They’re one example of the superorganism. They have a very intriguing division of labor. That’s one of the hallmarks of superorganisms: individuals do different things, like organs in the body. An organ is different from another organ in the context of the body. The division of labor in honeybee workers is between bees in the nest and those out foraging. And between foragers, there’s specialization of a bee collecting a mixture of pollen. Just as people can do different jobs, based on interest, these bees are doing very different things.
Okay, maybe I have myself to blame for the confusion, perhaps I’ve missed a few years of groundbreaking research that hasn’t yet made it into the beekeeping textbooks, but I find this outright misleading. Honeybees, as opposed to many species of ants, only have three castes; Queens, Workers and Drones (whereas ants may have more than one kind of worker). Workers are identical to one another and an individual worker, during the span of her life, carries out all or most of the tasks essential to the working of the colony. Worker labour division is sequential; specialisation depends on the age of the individual worker. Newborn bees start their life by cleaning themselves and the cell they came out of, then they start secreting royal jelly and help nurse the larvae, then they develop their wax-secreting glands and become builders, etc. There is also a certain degree of plasticity where the workers can switch to a task that is currently in demand.
I’m sure the person quoted must know this, so why use an analogy that is just so preposterously false? My lungs didn’t start out as excretory organs and won’t switch tasks to circulation in the future. They’re morphologically distinct from other organs and only carry out the tasks they’re made for. In short, worker bees are nothing like organs in a body, but more like members of a household, where small children may carry out certain tasks, teenagers other tasks and adults yet others.
Another thing that strikes me as really odd about the Wired blog post is that the picture at the top, while beautiful, cuts a queen in half (notice the large, dark and shiny abdomen at the top edge of the picture; very different from the striped, fuzzy bottoms of the workers). The photographer was obviously aiming for the queen and whomever cropped the picture completely missed out on this…