Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The lives of honey bees

Ever since a bee-enthusiast told me a few facts about the lives of honey bees, I've wanted to write about them. If it made sense to describe the behaviour of the honey bee using terms from human sociology, I think something along the lines of 'fascist matriarchy' might be suitable: the queen bee seems to yield a rather authoritarian power, and the males seem to get a rather rough deal.

There are three 'castes' of honey bees in a hive: the queen bee, the worker bee and the drone.

The queen bee: there is only one queen bee in a hive. When she hatches, she will go and kill off all other unhatched or hatched queens, so assuming her right to the throne. Soon after birth, she goes on her one and only ever mating flight, mating with multiple male bees. Her primary purpose in the hive is the lay eggs.

The worker bee: worker bees are all female. They lack the ability to reproduce themselves, and devote their lives to foraging and storing nectar and pollen, cleaning the hive, feeding the male bees and the unhatched eggs, and servicing the queen with all her needs.

The drone: drone bees are the male bees. Their primary purpose is to mate with the queen bee. However, those that are successful unluckily die in the very act. Male bees are the first to be expelled from the hive when winters are harsh and honey reserves are low, left to starve without food.

So why have honey bees evolved to behave in this way that I rather ridiculously call 'fascist matriarchy'? Thanks to evolution, this behaviour must be to their benefit, but I found hard at first to see how.

In the animal kingdom, this type of behaviour is known as 'eusociality'. Eusociality is different to other social systems in the animal kingdom because, in eusocial animals, different castes of the animal perform functions that other castes of the animal cannot perform. Because of this, a single honey bee, whether it be a queen, worker or drone, cannot survive for very long by itself; it needs the rest of its hive to live. Because it is the hive rather than individual that is self-sufficient, such eusocial groups are often referred to as 'super-organisms'.

When considered as a super-organism, the behaviour of the honey bee makes much more sense. Just like organs in a self-sufficient organism, the bees each have different functions in the running of their self-sufficient hive; so, for example, only one female in the whole hive need have reproductive organs, because she reproduces on behalf of the whole hive. Furthermore, since bees do not mate in winter, the drones are of no use to the hive at this time, and are thus expelled in favour of the workers and the queen, needed to care for the hive and produce its next generation.

At the level of the individual, their lives seem starkly different to ours, but at the level of the super-organism, this difference is less stark. I think they're a great example of how varied the workings of the natural world can be, yet how life ultimately works in very similar ways.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

How we might make physics lessons a bit more exciting

A lot of people are put off by physics - it can come across as dry and tedious, where the content is too abstract to be interesting and the calculations involve too many numbers. I am somewhat of a physics-lover, and even I found physics at school quite a chore.

From the little I know about what it is to teach, I have no doubt that the national curriculum is very stringent, allowing little space in which teachers might inject excitement. Even if there was the space, teachers tend to be so over-worked that it's hard to see where they could find the time. However, there is something I think that could make a difference; something that teachers could do that would attract students' interest, creating a foundation upon which learning physics could be more engaging.

Students listen when they see things they don't expect, whether it be their teachers put on a ridiculous Christmas pantomine or something less excusable such as their peers creating class mayhem. Physics has the advantage of lending itself to demonstrations with impressive, and often unexpected, results. So perhaps physics lessons could involve a few more things like that.

I was watching a QI repeat quite recently and Stephen Fry was describing a rather fantastic demonstration he was privy to in one of his school science lessons. His teacher brought into his class a single, red rose. Rather dramatically, the teacher whipped the rose into a bucket of liquid nitrogen and then flung it against the wooden desk, causing it to shatter, like glass, into a hundred pieces. Watching a rose shatter on impact is definitely something you wouldn't expect to see, and would have definitely got my attention in a lesson. After a short discussion on the exciting properties of liquid nitrogen (nitrogen - liquid? etc.), perhaps this demonstration could be an introduction to a GCSE lesson in cooling and heating.

I know that there are so many reasons why this, in general, couldn't be a solution to the lack of interest in physics lessons. Obstacles show up in their plenty, from the limits of technical support available to teachers to having a class disciplined enough to perform demonstrations of this kind. But the point here is that physics lends itself to eye-widening phenomena, and enabling students to realise this might make them a bit more excited about it.