Why do Honeybees have Barbed Stingers? The Law of Balance

Besides the many other interesting things about them, an interesting fact about honeybees is that they belong to the only bee species to possess barbed stingers. Their proliferation in the natural and urban environment, in part because of their widespread cultivation by humans, has led many people to believe erroneously that all bees have barbed stingers. In addition, many people mistakenly believe that most or all bees live in colonies, as honeybees do. However, the majority of bee species are in fact solitary; and clearly in their case it would be highly disadvantageous for them to possess barbed stingers, since this would mean the death of the individual bee after it stings its adversary just once. If most people are not aware of these facts about bees, it is because of their limited apiary knowledge, which is focused primarily on honeybees, and hence makes these pollinating and nectar-collecting insects seem more preponderant than they really are.

If one examines a bee stinger under a microscope, one will see that the barbs, which occur at regular intervals on opposite sides of the stinger, are quite short in comparison to the length of the stinger, which itself is only one or two millimetres in length. As most people know, when a honeybee stings its victim, the barbs prevent the bee from extracting the stinger, with the result that some of its internal organs are torn out when it tries to fly away, leading to the bee’s death. Although many biologists and others search for adaptive evolutionary explanations for every feature and behaviour of organisms in the world, clearly this is not an adaptive feature. And the fact that only honeybees possess this maladaptive feature suggests that it evolved only after honeybees became a distinct genus.

Viewed from the narrow perspective of the Law of Natural Selection, this feature makes no sense, since it does not increase the honeybees’ chances of survival. To invest the colony’s energy into nurturing and feeding its worker bees, only to lose some of them the first time they sting an adversary, such as a honey-robbing bear, is not at all beneficial. Viewed from the colony’s perspective, it would be far better if the bee could extract its stinger intact and attack the adversary repeatedly,[1] or return to the colony, where it could contribute to the colony’s upkeep in other ways, such as by helping to repair the colony’s hive or foraging for food supplies, which will certainly be necessary if a large portion of honey has been stolen.

Such a maladaptive feature is not found in the rest of Nature. Other venomous creatures, such as snakes, scorpions, wasps, and spiders, do not have barbed fangs or stingers that prevent them from extracting their venomous part from their victims. As a result, they can bite or sting their victims repeatedly and on numerous occasions throughout their lives. Moreover, other creatures that use their teeth or claws to catch their prey or defend themselves do not suffer fatal injuries from the loss of one or more of these sharp, pointed anatomical features. And many animals can regenerate their teeth or claws if they happen to lose them. Some crustaceans such as crabs can grow back their claws if they lose them, even though these claws constitute a much larger part of their bodies than a honeybee’s stinger does to the bee. Moreover, the loss of a claw does not cause the crustacean’s death. Hence, in the animal world, the honeybee’s barbed stinger is very clearly an anomaly that cannot be explained by the Law of Natural Selection.

Even given the fact that honeybees have barbed stingers, why did the stinger not evolve to detach from the bee’s body in a manner that does not cause its death? Surely, given all the many other extraordinary features of organisms that actually exist, this could have easily occurred. Another way to consider this matter is that, if a new kind of honeybee were to arise whose members either lost the barbs on their stingers, or they developed a stinger that detaches and regrows, then this colony would be more successful and gradually displace the honeybee colonies that presently exist, since they would compete for the same food sources.

Although the honeybee’s possession of a barbed stinger that leads to the bee’s death following its first use against an adversary makes no sense when viewed from the perspective of the Theory of Evolution and the Law of Natural Selection, it makes perfect sense when this maladaptive feature is viewed from the perspective of the Law of Balance. The fact that honeybees live in highly organized, populous colonies makes them far more successful, in terms of total numbers, than perhaps all other bee species. Hence, the purpose of this maladaptive feature is to reduce their success in comparison to other bee species. In the realm of horseracing, this is comparable to the practice of weighing down faster horses or lighter jockeys to make the race more even. For the honeybee’s barbed stinger is indeed a biological handicap.

Let us turn our attention to another creature – the octopus – whose behaviour, when considered from the perspective of the Law of Natural Selection, likewise makes no sense. In its fully developed stage, the octopus possesses some marvelous and unusual adaptive features, including its ability to change colour rapidly to blend into its environment, which helps it to catch prey and hide from predators, its powerful suction cups, which aid it in both hunting and defending itself, the black ink it can expel in order temporarily to confuse its predators, thus giving it time to escape, and its lack of a skeleton,[2] which allows it to squeeze through narrow rocky passages that larger or more rigid sea organisms cannot pass through.

However, in their infant stage, before they become large enough to defend themselves from the many predators that lurk in the seas and oceans where they live, octopuses are extremely vulnerable to being eaten. In effect, baby octopuses are tasty, defenceless morsels of protein that are easily digested because of their lack of bones and are very easily caught because of their relatively slow and awkward method of propelling themselves. In the case of jellyfish, which use a similar method of propulsion, they at least have stinging cells in their tentacles to keep predators away. In addition, they consist almost entirely of water, meaning that jellyfish are not very nutritious. How could Nature, which has taken the trouble to equip many other species with formidable defences, have been so negligent in the case of the octopus?

A female octopus can lay a very large number of eggs, which can number more than 100,000. However, very few of these fertilized eggs will reach maturity. Even if 1,000 of these eggs were to reach maturity, this would still only be a survival rate of 1%, or 1 out of every 100. The actual survival rate is in fact much lower than this, since if one pair of octopuses could beget 1,000 mature octopuses, then obviously the seas and oceans would be overrun with them, which is not the case. Hence, the actual survival rate is probably less than 10 per 100,000, or a figure that is less than 1 out of every 10,000 fertilized eggs!

The fate of many an unfortunate baby octopus reminds me of a witty saying by Oscar Wilde: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Octopuses are solitary creatures that come together only to mate. Following the act of insemination, during which the male octopus uses a special appendage called the hectocotylus to transfer its packets of sperm to the female octopus, the male octopus abandons his mate, never to see her or their future progeny, except perhaps to eat some of them, as the chance may be. Hence, even before they are born, baby octopuses have already lost their male parent. Although the female octopus shows remarkable devotion in tending her unborn progeny, guarding them continually and making sure that they are regularly bathed with oxygen-rich water, her care ends with their birth, after which they drift in the water for several weeks, a period when they are extremely vulnerable to predation, before they are able to settle on the somewhat less dangerous sea or ocean bottom. In other words, once they are born, all octopuses have lost both their parents.[3]

Considering that, even among sea and ocean creatures, there exist a variety of different parental strategies or behaviours that increase the chances of survival of their offspring, why are octopuses so singularly inept or negligent in their parental duties? Again, when considered from the perspective of the Law of Natural Selection, the octopus’s parental behaviour doesn’t make much sense, since it results in an abysmally low rate of offspring survival.[4]

In order to understand the octopus’s reproductive behaviour, we need to consider the effects it produces. Although the following interpretation is not entertained – and in fact would be strenuously denied – by those evolutionary biologists who swear by the Law of Natural Selection, and therefore dogmatically seek to fit every morphological feature and every behaviour of every organism that has ever existed on the Earth to accord with its narrow strictures, the fact is that, by laying a very large number of eggs that result in a correspondingly large number of progeny, almost all of which – more than 99.99% in some octopus species – are eaten before they reach sexual maturity, octopuses provide food for the many other marine animals that live in their vicinity. From the perspective of the Law of Balance, which seeks to maintain a balance between different species and prevent any one species from becoming overly dominant, the octopus’s behaviour makes perfect sense. In addition, we should remember that some of the creatures that feed on baby octopuses will in turn be eaten by those fortunate octopuses that are able to survive to maturity.

In cases where an organism, such as a fish, insect, or reptile, produces far more offspring than are necessary to maintain its numbers, and then leaves these eggs or progeny unhidden and unprotected, besides reproducing its kind, these excess offspring are also meant to nourish other organisms.[5] In the case of land animals with large litters, such as mice, pigs, rabbits, and rodents in general, besides helping to perpetuate their own kind, their fecundity also serves to provide food for the many predators that feed on them. We humans should have no difficulty in understanding the nutritive value of eggs and animals that are raised for meat, since, due to our species’ diabolical cleverness, except for the tiny percentage that are kept as pets, the domesticated chicken is no longer a species that lives and reproduces for its own sake; instead, it has been reduced to an egg, meat, and feather-producing organism that is allowed to live and reproduce solely for the benefit of human beings, in an example of the totalitarian subjugation and exploitation of one species by another.

Let us consider the facts about salmon: salmon migrate from the streams and rivers where they are born and travel to lakes, seas, or oceans, where they spend most of their lives. Shortly before spawning, they return to the stream where they were born – an astonishing navigational feat that is still not understood by marine biologists – where, after making exhausting efforts to battle the stream’s current, they lay their eggs and die.[6] This is truly an extraordinary life cycle. Why on earth do salmon not live a life of relative ease in the lake, sea, or ocean, as the great majority of other fish and marine organisms do, instead of following this arduous and exhausting mode of life?

It is only when we look at what the salmon’s remarkable life cycle achieves that we will be able to understand its unusual behaviour. Salmon begin their lives in a region that is relatively poor in life and nutrients, travel to a region that is much richer in life and nutrients, where they bulk up, increasing in size from hatchlings to large adult fish, and then return to the nutrient-poor region, where their nutrient-rich bodies serve to feed both the animals and plants that live there. In other words, salmon are one of Nature’s many mechanisms for transferring large quantities of life-sustaining nutrients from nutrient-rich regions of the Earth to nutrient-poor regions.[7] And this is amply demonstrated by the fact that many salmon species die immediately after they have spawned, a characteristic that is not shared by the majority of animal parents after they have reproduced. In other words, soon after they have laid or fertilized their eggs, their bodies serve to provide food for the plants and animals that live in that region. And not only do they die immediately after spawning, they do not feed at all during their arduous upriver journey, which requires the expenditure of a very large amount of energy. This extraordinary behaviour – which is comparable to human climbers who, attempting to climb a mountain peak such as Mount Everest, do not eat anything during their long and difficult ascent – means that they do not diminish in the slightest the total amount of life that exists in the stream or river, while they help to increase this life with the sacrifice of their nutrient-rich bodies. Truly, this is an extraordinary example of animal sacrifice, not only for the good of their offspring, but also for the good of the region, as well as for the other organisms that live there, where the salmon are born and die. After all, there is no reason why salmon could not have evolved so that, after spawning, they return to the lake, sea, or ocean where they have spent most of their lives, and repeat the journey again in the future. From the narrow perspective of their own survival and well-being, this behaviour would make much more sense than the extremely arduous and self-sacrificial behaviour that they actually perform.[8]

When one watches salmon struggling to swim upriver over rapids and rocks, which sometimes require that they make difficult, exhausting leaps into the air, one wonders why they didn’t choose an easier river to navigate. This leads us to another interesting fact about salmon, the fact that they do not spawn in large rivers. It would be much easier for salmon to swim upriver in a large river with no obstacles like rapids and rocky barriers than it is for salmon to swim upriver in small streams. Moreover, shallow streams result in the violation of a pretty basic rule of behaviour that all fish species observe almost all the time: avoid shallow water in which you may be stranded, and where you are more likely to be caught and eaten by terrestrial animals or birds. This is another instance where salmon behaviour violates general fish survival behaviour.

Since there are some salmon species that spend most of their lives in the ocean, why could it not have happened, in the course of evolutionary time, that some of them became lost or confused and proceeded to swim up a different river than the one where they were born? If these confused salmon laid their eggs in the new river, then this particular species of salmon would forever return up this more easily navigated river than the tortuous streams up which they actually swim. Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the lack of salmon in mighty rivers like the Amazon and Nile is extremely curious. But considered from an ecological perspective, it makes a good deal of sense, since large rivers already possess an abundance of different kinds of life, and so they do not require the large transfer of nutrients that salmon provide.[9] In other words, salmon only spawn in parts of the world that are located relatively far from the equator and receive less sunlight year-round than the tropical zones located closer to the equator. Hence, these regions benefit significantly more from the nutrient transfer that salmon provide by their remarkable life-cycle.

Similarly, rain is a method of transferring vital, life-giving water from areas that are abundant in water, such as oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers, to areas that are lacking in water. Without this regular process, which many humans take for granted, and thus have ceased to regard as the truly amazing process that it is, the total amount of life on the land would be very greatly diminished. In fact, without rain, almost all land masses would soon become barren and infertile deserts.

Let us turn our attention to the cuckoo, whose unusual behaviour has attracted the attention of biologists and others ever since its nature has been recognized. The cuckoo is called a parasitic bird because of its habit of laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. When doing so, the female cuckoo may remove one or more of the host bird’s own eggs or, in some species, the cuckoo hatchling, blind and featherless, performs this devious act by pushing out the other eggs immediately after it has hatched. If we wish to understand this behaviour, again, we need to consider the effects it produces.

It has been found that the cuckoo’s diet differs from the diets of the birds it parasitizes. Moreover, in some cases, it eats insects that are not eaten by other birds. If cuckoos behaved like other birds and reared their own young, rather than getting other birds to perform this vital service, at the cost of some of the victimized birds’ own progeny, then the cuckoos would only have an effect in reducing the populations of all the creatures that they consume, while having little effect on the populations of other birds, except perhaps through competition for nesting sites and nest-building materials. Hence, by this devious stratagem, the cuckoo serves to limit the populations of two unrelated animal species.

We can now see a reason for the cuckoo’s unusual behaviour: viewed from the perspective of the Law of Balance, the cuckoo serves to limit the populations of two or more unrelated organisms. Its behaviour is an example of the proverb of killing two birds with one stone – or more precisely, killing some members of two different species, one of which is a bird species, with the same bird! Cuckoos are in fact a marvellous, albeit somewhat bizarre, illustration of the Law of Balance.

There are numerous examples and mechanisms that exist in Nature to limit the populations of individual species, as well as to preserve the balance that all ecosystems require in order to remain in their optimal state. However, these examples and mechanisms have not been much discussed because, previously, most biologists have not been aware of the importance of the Law of Balance. In other words, their beliefs, attitudes, explanations, and thoughts have been rigidly shaped and confined by their belief in the global validity of the Law of Natural Selection in determining the nature of, and the phenomena that we observe in, the natural world.

There is abundant suggestive evidence from field and experimental studies indicating the reality of population self-regulation. Fruitflies and nematodes appear to suppress their fertility in response to crowding, even with abundant nutrition (Guarente and Kenyon 2000). Observations in the wild suggest that rabbits exhibit the same response (Bittner and Chapman 1981). Arctic caribou in a fragile tundra environment breed less frequently than animals of the same species further south (Wynne-Edwards 1962). When deer are plentiful, wolves kill more deer and consume less of each (Kolenosky 1972). And the accumulated anecdotal experience of wildlife managers has created in that culture a belief that predator populations self-regulate (Nudds 1987). For each of these examples, evidence is not clean enough to rule out explanations from individual self-interest, which are deemed theoretically more conservative.[10]

As the authors of the last excerpt recognized, there are many instances where natural selection and the Law of Balance have the same or similar effects. However, there are also instances, such as the fact that only honeybees possess barbed stingers, or the woefully inept parenting behaviour of octopuses, that clearly contradict the Law of Natural Selection and can only be explained by the Law of Balance.

These important natural effects or patterns are not visible at the level of the individual organism, or even at the level of the species. And they most certainly are not visible at the level of the gene, which is the extremely myopic, Lilliputian level at which Richard Dawkins stringently insists that life must be viewed in order to understand all organisms’ behaviours. These effects can only be perceived and understood at the level of the symbiotic system, or ecosystem, in which each organism, and each species, exists, and of which it forms a part. This is comparable to the fact that, when one stands next to a painting, one will not be able to see the patterns or overall picture that can only be seen when one stands further away from it. Or to employ another common metaphor, Richard Dawkins cannot see the forest because of his obsession with the individual trees.

Rust is a fungus that can cause serious damage to grains, besides other plants, that are grown by humans for food.

Wild populations [of wheat, barley, and oats] also have rusts, often the very same races [types] as found in the USA or Europe, but these rusts do little damage. Detailed analyses show that the defences deployed by wild cereals are remarkably complex. There are indeed gene-for-gene systems, but there are also slow rusting effects, where rust development is delayed until it is too late to do much damage, and systems that delay or reduce spore formation, as well as partial resistance and no doubt other systems as well. It was found that if 30% of the population cannot be infected by a given race of rust, the whole population, including the most susceptible components, is protected. That race cannot build up enough inoculums to damage the whole population. These studies, long overdue, have told us a lot about how we might manage our wheat belts. Landrace populations tend to mimic wild ones in their genetic defenses against disease. The goal of modern plant breeding is to develop defenses similar in complexity to those of wild and landrace populations.[11]

The fact that, in wild cereal populations, rusts have less devastating effects is probably due to the fact that, apart from deliberate human cultivation, one simply does not find densely planted areas inhabited by a single grain, without any, or with very few, other plants in those areas.

If one understands the importance and implications of the Law of Balance, then one will see that Nature abhors a monoculture. The naive human belief that we can plant nothing but the desired plant in an area, while preventing everything else from growing, whether the plant is a cereal, fruit-bearing tree, or hardwood tree, without provoking Nature’s attempts to restore the balance that we have so greatly upset by these actions, shows how little we understand about the way that Nature functions. The same is true of our constantly increasing human population, which is decimating other species while it dramatically impoverishes the natural landscape. If one understands the Law of Balance, one will see that this situation cannot continue indefinitely, and that Nature will eventually act to correct this grave and dangerous human-caused imbalance.

[1] For example, bumblebees, which live in smaller colonies than honeybees, have barbless stingers that they can use multiple times.

[2] The only rigid part of an octopus is its beak, which it uses to eat its prey, such as hard-shelled crustaceans.

[3] In some species, the female remains with her eggs constantly until they hatch, not even venturing out to hunt or search for food, so that she gradually weakens and dies. Hence, for her, this extraordinary example of devoted motherhood, which occurs the first time she reproduces, entails the sacrifice of her life.

[4] I do not believe there is anyone who would argue that a survival rate that lies between 0.001% and 0.01% can in any sense be considered successful.

[5] In these instances, notwithstanding Richard Dawkins’ dogmatic insistence about the “selfish gene,” it is better to speak of the “selfless gene” or the “sharing gene.” Since Dawkins’ argument that genes are selfish is based solely on the observed real-world effects of animals’ behaviours, in these cases, which are quite common among certain species of organisms, it follows that the parents, or genes, as Dawkins prefers, lay their eggs not only to produce more of their kind, but also to feed other organisms. That this is in fact the case is shown by the fact that organisms that do not intend to share their offspring with other animals produce far fewer of them, and they expend considerable energy, not to mention incurring some risks to themselves, in order to protect, nurture, and defend their offspring from predators.

[6] My discussion of salmon behaviour applies primarily to Pacific salmon, which spawn in coastal areas located in the northwestern parts of North America as well as in Japan and northeastern Asia. There are several species of Atlantic salmon that do return to the ocean or lake after spawning, which act they may perform more than once.

[7] We no longer get a sense of the size of this nutrient transfer because a number of human activities, including damming salmon rivers, polluting the water, and overfishing, have all dramatically decreased the number of salmon that return to the places where they were born in order to spawn. These salmon runs were truly awesome in their magnitude, as was recorded by the first explorers who witnessed them, before human activities tragically diminished their magnitude.

[8] I realize that the salmon’s spawning behaviour can also be explained from the standard perspective of the individual species’ survival. By laying their eggs in shallow streams, they protect them from the many predators that live in larger bodies of water; and by dying shortly after spawning, their bodies provide food for other organisms, such as insects, that will in turn help to feed the young salmon. But clearly this is not all that salmon achieve by their behaviour, and only someone who myopically views Nature from the limited perspective of the Theory of Evolution and the Law of Natural Selection will deny or be blinded to these effects.

[9] Of course, considered from the narrow perspective of the survival of their species, this would also mean that there are many more organisms that could eat their eggs and the young salmon that hatch from them, and so it is advantageous for salmon to lay their eggs in places that are relatively devoid of marine life, especially large predatory forms of marine life that would eat their eggs and hatchlings.

[10] Beyond Mechanism: Putting Life Back Into Biology, chapter 12 (“Multilevel Selection and the Evolution of Predatory Restraint” by Joshua Mitteldorf, David H. Croll, and S. Chandu Ravela, in Artificial Life VIII: Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Artificial Life, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2002). Edited by Brian G Henning and Adam C. Scarfe. Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland, 2013.

[11] The living fields: our agricultural heritage by Jack R. Harlan, pp. 38-39. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.