Buddha, Bees and the Giant Hornet Queen (and Nicholas Taleb)

Bees, Hornets and the Markets 

‘Buddha, Bees and the Giant Hornet Queen’ is the title of a fascinating documentary that aired on Wednesday evening, on BBC 2 . The programme followed the life of a Japanese Giant Hornet Queen as she established a hornet colony; the colony went on to launch a military style attack on a bee-hive kept by commercial bee keepers. Over the course of a few hours, around 30,000 honey-bees were massacred by a mere handful of hornet soldiers. It wasn’t a battle, but a killing field. And why was the carnage so one-sided? The bees in question were western honey-bees, introduced by the bee-keepers because they have much higher honey production than domestic honey bees. However, because these bees had never been exposed to such a predator before, they were totally defenceless when attacked.  


Domestic honey bees form a bee-ball to kill the hornet

In contrast, a local bee-keeping monk kept a hive of domestic honey bees, and when a soldier hornet came knocking on this hive, the bees knew the drill. They patiently waited for the hornet to enter the hive and then attacked, smothering the hornet in a bee ball (see picture), and literally cooking the hornet to death.

Watching this made me think about evolution and the importance of not thinking I can trade market x just because I can trade market y. Each market has its own personality, its own traps, it’s own gifts.

Is Nicholas Taleb an orchid? 

Earlier in the programme, the Buddhist monk showed how he attracted the domestic honey-bees. He simply placed a certain species of orchid next to an empty hive box. Instead of producing a sweet smelling pollen, this orchid employed an altogether different strategy. The plant had evolved to produce the scent of the giant hornet. This led to a large scale attack by the domestic honey-bees, who unwittingly played their role in spreading the pollen. The plant looked worse for wear after the attack but it’s objective had been met. And the bees, when they tired of attacking the plant, found respite in the nearby hive box, which they then started using as a home.

This led me to draw another parallel, this time to Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s new book, ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ , is being discussed at great length by the media and in the blogosphere. Some reviewers think it is a rambling non-sense, that its 400 pages are used to pad out just one central idea, and that it contains many poor examples. Taleb’s reputation as an intellectual but arrogant author also comes in to play. However, there are also several good reviews by other prominent writers.

I haven’t had contact with Taleb or his book, and I have no opinion on either, but I am amazed at how many words (pollen) are being devoted to the new book in new and old media alike. Like the orchid, Taleb seems to have niche. His personality seems to be very strong, and his work creates both critics and followers alike. This is perfect for Taleb, because the diverse opinion generates discussion. I am also led to wonder whether some people will buy his book expecting to disagree with him, with a view of being able to tell others why and where he is wrong. For Taleb, and for his books sales, it’s all effective pollen spreading.


13 responses to “Buddha, Bees and the Giant Hornet Queen (and Nicholas Taleb)

  1. Is it possible to buy or rent the documentry Buddha, bees and the giant hornet queen ?


    P. Kent.

  2. Hi P Kent, I’m not sure. You could try searching Google Video or Youtube for clips or may be even the whole show. If it’s not there, then I wouldn’t know where to go next.

    If you don’t find it anywhere, bookmark it as a ‘future watch’ because the BBC will eventually be making a stack load of its back catalogue available on-line. good luck.

  3. thanks

  4. hello

    i know its late but in case somebody wants to know
    you can buy the following dvd it contains this documentary

    The BBC Natural World Collection (DVD)

  5. can someone explain to me how the orchid evolved a way of producing the scent of the hornet in order to attract the honey bees. how could a plant ‘know’ that the hornet and bee were sworn enemies and would attack each other? it implies that the orchid has knowledge….but how did it acquire this knowledge – from watching natural history programs? please help….but spare me any creation answers thankyou.

  6. Hi Julian, As it stands, I’m pretty miffed about the whole thing as well. The darn fossil record is extremely poor for plants versus animals so we can’t see incremental changes very well, but I can imagine at least two possible answers.
    Perhaps the plant once had a type of smell sensors (other plants have this – http://tinyurl.com/cabf7n) that detected what kind of external conditions were the best fit and tried and synthesise the beneficial effect, or was there a random mutation that led to a small level of bee hostility which the plant found to be in its favour. As soon as this happens, I can imagine millions of years of gradual change bringing the hostile scent to the match the hornet.

  7. hi riz. what concerns me is how the orchid could be aware of increments in hostility between bees and hornets and how it then decided to synthesise substances that mimicked those produced by hornets. even if it had sensors….how could it derive any benefit from sensing a ruck going on between bees and hornets? i wish the program had explained that….rather than just stating it as a fait accompli. i went to your blog….are you a spandau ballet fan?

  8. I can really only wonder at this orchid that wishes to unleash a wave of destruction on itself.

    Re Spandau Ballet, I am indeed a fan … at least of all their greatest hits…good to see ’em back!

  9. caravaggio…where can i email you?

  10. wait a minute…..are caravaggio and riz din both spandau ballet fans….or are you one and the same?

  11. both the same amigo… I’m at the3500(at)googlemail.com

  12. do u know the name of the orchid?

  13. Hi do you the orchids species?

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