How Bees Have Inspired Economists and Influenced Human History

Recently, I have extensively perused several early works of economics. Economists of yore appeared to harbor an affinity for bees.

In 1732, Bernard Mandeville, a Londoner hailing from the Netherlands, unveiled “The Fable of the Bees,” renowned as the magnum opus of “primitive economics.” This opus narrates the saga of a bee kingdom’s ascent and decline through the medium of a fable. Initially, this collective of bees toiled assiduously, pursuing an elevated standard of living, thereby ushering prosperity throughout the realm. Subsequently, the entire society veered toward excessive frugality, precipitating a gradual economic downturn. The author’s intention is to elucidate, via this fable, that consumption constitutes a pivotal component of aggregate demand, and fostering consumption assumes paramount significance in stimulating economic progress.

Over two centuries later, British economist Keynes drew inspiration from this narrative, forging modern macroeconomics centered around the analysis of aggregate demand. Concepts such as the division of labor and the “invisible hand,” which would later play pivotal roles in economics, find their prototypes in this fable.

Nobel laureate James Meade, too, sought inspiration from bees while endeavoring to explicate the notion of “positive externalities.”

Positive externality, as commonly understood, denotes the phenomenon wherein the economic activities of one entity confer supplementary benefits upon other entities, without necessitating the latter’s assumption of the associated costs. Generally speaking, due to the absence of self-interested effects resulting from the subject’s behavior, overall supply falls short, thereby necessitating the intervention of a “visible hand” to furnish support or subsidies. Contemporary society is well acquainted with this concept. Most infrastructural and welfare-oriented investments, such as those in education and healthcare, are replete with evident positive externalities. However, economists in the mid-20th century required some time to grasp this notion.

James Meade opined that the relationship between bees and apples constitutes a perfect exemplification of a positive externality. In his 1952 treatise, he posited the following: Envision an expanse encompassing orchards and apiaries. If apple farmers were to plant additional apple trees, beekeepers would derive benefits by producing more honey. However, from the perspective of the fruit farmers, augmenting the number of apple trees fails to enhance their labor-to-output ratio, thereby precluding additional benefits. Should the fruit farmer opt to plant more apple trees, this conduct engenders a positive externality—a conduct that, while bereft of personal gain, augments the beekeeper’s income, thus elevating society’s total income.

This indeed constitutes the most enchanting embodiment of economic principles. Close your eyes, and Meade’s vivid example shall materialize before you: the early summer mist enveloping the apple orchard, where beekeepers and fruit farmers, donned in protective attire, engage in animated conversation beneath the tree’s shade. Observe the bees fluttering about, industriously engaged. It is no wonder this example has endured through the years—it possesses a vividness, despite being predicated upon an erroneous foundation—namely, that apple blossoms yield trifling amounts of honey.

Interestingly, despite numerous economists harboring fallacious notions regarding bees, the interplay between humans and bees has indeed influenced the course of history.

Long ago, humans lacked the capability to keep bees, yet they were able to collect honey by pilfering hives from wild bees. Such scenes are captured in numerous primitive cave paintings.

Beekeeping commenced at least 5,000 years ago. Historical evidence attests that the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all employed specialists tasked with “taming bees.”

By the Middle Ages, beekeepers began to emerge, employing straw beehives that resembled a conical pile of straw ropes.

The vexing aspect of straw beehives lies in the necessity of driving out the bees to obtain honey. Beekeepers of that era typically employed sulfur to fumigate the bees, subsequently apprehensive as to whether new colonies could be established promptly. This lethal conduct perturbed the general populace, for bees, as diminutive creatures, not only bestow delectable honey upon humans but also participate in the pollination of plants.

The pressing need for a more scientific beehive was in the best interest of all parties involved, especially the bees.

In 1852, the United States Patent Office granted Patent No. 9300A to Lorenzo Lorraine Longstruth, an American pastor. He devised a living frame beehive, known today as the “Lang’s beehive.”

The Lang’s beehive assumes the form of a wooden box that opens from the top, with frames hanging below, evenly spaced at a “magical” interval of 8 mm. The term “magical” aptly describes this gap since any deviation from this specification compels bees to construct additional structures within the partitions, thus engendering unforeseen complications. The queen bee resides at the base of the hive, restrictedto the lowermost frames, while worker bees construct honeycombs on the upper frames. This design allows for easier inspection, honey extraction, and colony management without causing significant disruption to the bees.

Lang’s beehive revolutionized beekeeping practices worldwide, enabling beekeepers to maintain healthier and more productive colonies. It improved the welfare of bees by providing them with a conducive environment for their natural behavior, while also facilitating the extraction of honey and other hive products.

The advent of modern beehives, including variations of the Lang’s beehive design, has played a crucial role in supporting beekeeping as an industry. Honey production, pollination services, and the cultivation of other hive products have become more efficient and sustainable with the aid of these innovations. Bees, in turn, continue to contribute to agriculture and ecological balance through their pollination activities.

In recent years, the conservation of bees and their habitats has gained significant attention due to concerns about declining bee populations. Bees play a vital role in pollinating a wide range of flowering plants, including many crops that make up a substantial portion of the human diet. The decline in bee populations poses a potential threat to food security and ecosystem health, as it could disrupt pollination services and impact biodiversity.

Efforts are being made to address these concerns through initiatives such as promoting bee-friendly practices in agriculture, conserving natural habitats, reducing pesticide use, and raising awareness about the importance of bees in ecosystems. Additionally, research is being conducted to better understand the factors contributing to bee decline and to develop strategies for their conservation.

Bees have not only inspired economists in their conceptualization of economic principles but have also influenced human history through their role in honey production, pollination, and the development of beekeeping practices. Their significance extends beyond economics, encompassing ecology, agriculture, and food security. Preserving bee populations and their habitats is crucial for maintaining the delicate balance of our natural ecosystems and ensuring the sustainability of our food systems.

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