Living Drones

Throughout human history, the honeybee has emerged as a machine of agriculture and of war.

Winter has descended upon the beehives. The drones have been killed. It's time for the workers and the queen to gather up, hunker down, and rely on body heat to weather the cold. The old will die, the young might survive. If there's enough food, the queen might lay eggs.

Come spring, the workers will step out to forage for pollen. Plants will start flowering, hoping to attract workers to stick pollen on their hairy legs, and sprinkle some pollen on another plant as they buzz around. Bee colonies will grow. The queen will lay more eggs, including drones. The drones can't gather pollen and they can't make honey. They live to mate. And come fall, those that live without mating will be starved to death and nudged out of the hive by the workers. The season of stillness and survival will close in, and it'll be time to hunker down.

That's one way of understanding the honeybee, one in which we play the part of casual observer of a complex and social system that has evolved over millions of years.

But we are not casual observers.

The honeybee has been our source of honey for more than 6,000 years. The honeybee was important enough to us even back then to feature in prehistoric art in what is modern Spain of a human figure climbing up a vine to fish into a beehive.

Today the honeybee is a migrant agricultural machine. One third of our food traces its path back to a pollinated plant, which means bees are responsible for far more of our food than honey. The $15 billion agriculture industry dwarfs the $150 million honey market. The trucking of honeybees to pollinate America's crops is the largest human-driven (literally) migration of insects.

We talk about honeybees a lot these days, mostly about their death. Since 2005, an average of 33 percent of all honeybee colonies in the United States have been dying every winter, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Colonies routinely collapse, so frequently that there's an annual colony death report. As Jeff Pettis, a USDA official, said in a 2013 report on the health of honeybees, “We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster.”

Last summer, the White House set up a pollinator task force to figure out why the bees are dying. Pesticides that embed themselves deep in a plant, neonicotinoids, are the latest culprit. Another long-range study of over 800 scientific papers from two decades said that neonicotinoids are an unambiguous threat to honeybees, birds, and worms. Still, nobody is certain that there is one single factor. We don't know whether the death is because of pesticides, mites, global warming, loss of wild habitat, viruses, other invasive bees, or a combination of many forces. Whatever it is, nine winters of death and inexplicable disappearances has created a frenzied market among farmers and beekeepers. People want more rented beehives, packaged bees, and airmailed queens (UPS Next Day).

Over 4,000 different kinds of bees are indigenous to this continent. The honeybee isn't one of them. When the settlers came to the continent in the 17th century, they brought the dark-colored German black bee. But these ill-tempered bees often succumbed to European foulbrood, a bacterial disease that killed their larvae. Word got around of an Italian honeybee, which was gentler and more resistant to the bacterial disease. They were lighter colored and thought to be more beautiful than and superior to all other bees. By 1860, the first Italian honeybees entered the country. L. L. Langstroth, credited with inventing and popularizing the movable beehive, was convinced of the Italian bee's prowess. “She is the ne plus ultra in beauty, good nature, industry and ability to defend herself,” he wrote in the American Bee Journal in 1867. Over the next 80 years, the country steadily changed its stock to hives of pure Italian honeybees. And since the decades after the World Wars, honeybees have been increasingly harnessed as a pollinator.

The link between the honeybee and the almond crop has become an established part of American agricultural folklore. How many of the world's almonds come from California? Four out of every five. How many hives to an acre of almonds? Two. How many acres? Eight-hundred-forty-thousand, an area larger than Rhode Island. How many almonds does that yield? 2.1 billion pounds of them.

Every February, more than 20 billion bees buzz around California's almond acres. About 60 percent of the rest of the nation's commercial honeybees are packed, trucked, and rented out to add to California's 400,000 hives, according to USDA figures. California has almost six times more land for almonds today than it in 1970. Today, almonds are a $3 billion crop, and the state's largest agricultural export. Land that once hosted a diversity of wild plants, vegetables, fruits, and natural pollinators is now home to vast monoculture plains waiting for the trucks of honeybees every February.

This is what Wendell Berry, the farmer, writer, and environmental activist, calls the way of industrialism. “Because industrialism cannot understand living things except as machines, and can grant them no value that is not utilitarian, it conceives of farming and forestry as forms of mining,” he wrote in an essay in Orion Magazine. “It cannot use the land without abusing it.”

The industrial food economy is dependent on migrant beehives trucked from California to Florida to Pennsylvania to Maine to New York, back to Pennsylvania, and back to Florida before going back to California for the next season. The central role for the honeybee in industrial agriculture also makes the honeybee more vulnerable to outside threats—from neonicotinoids to mites. In this landscape, the need is for some pollinating machine, even if it is at the expense of the honeybee. As Berry wrote, “If we make the world too toxic for honeybees, some compound brain, Monsanto perhaps, will invent tiny robots that will fly about pollinating flowers and making honey.”

Tiny flying robots inspired by honeybees aren't that far from our imagination. But the intent has not been agriculture so far, but a chemical sensing weapon.

More than forty years ago, researchers at the University of Montana started exploring how to harness the gathering ability of bees to sense chemicals in the environment. The worker bee's body is evolved to be covered with hair that can easily pick up pollen. But the same hair can also easily develop static charge and collect traces of chemicals such as explosives and pollutants. The researchers trained bees by introducing it to a sugar solution scented with the chemical trace. After repeated exposures, the bee could zero in on a region where the chemical was present, such as a land mine. In 2002, the scientist Jerry Bromenshenk and his team of researchers at the University of Montana were convinced that their “bees could reliably find explosives’ vapors at levels reported to occur in land mine fields.” And in 2013, Croatian researchers working with the government's demining bureau announced they were training honeybees to track land mines by associating the scent of chemical explosives with food.

The honeybee has long served as a machine for war. King Richard launched beehive catapults during the Third Crusade in the 12th century. The Romans used them heavily in warfare, which led to a significant decline in their population. More recently, Confederate troops unleashed hives at Union troops in the Civil War. Beeswax coated World War I ammunition. Even the methods of modern warfare are encased in apiary metaphors: armies bombard (from bombos, Greek for the buzzing of a bee) enemies with a swarm of drones.

The future of warfare imagines the honeybee as a machine that can be controlled, as a cyborg with technology mounted on it, and as the model for a replica machine that will mime its features. The U.S. military is the largest funder of apiary research, according to a 2010 paper. (DARPA announced a new central agency called Biological Technologies Office to house all biology-related research.) The common thread in past military-funded projects with names like Controlled Biological and Biomimetic Systems, Stealthy Insect Sensor Project, and Hybrid Insect Microelectromechanical Systems is the aspiration for insects like the honeybee to be something other than themselves.

In 2006, a team of researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory announced training bees to be individual bomb sniffers. They isolated bees in individual containers, and mixed the chemical with sugar water. Bees extend their proboscises, or tongues, in the sight of food. By introducing food laced with the chemical, they taught the bees to stick out their tongues whenever they scented the chemical. The project worked with Inscentinel, a British biotechnology start-up, to develop a sniffer scanner that could be used at airports. With backing from venture capitalists and the British government, Inscentinel announced a prototype in 2010. The VASOR136 was a device that looked like a handheld vacuum cleaner. It could take 36 bees, and the company claimed its unit could train 500 bees in five hours. Each bee was isolated in a cartridge that looked like a cross between a two-prong plug and a small printer cartridge. At the press of a button, a bee would be exposed to an air sample from the environment. If it contained traces of the chemical the bee was trained on, it would stick out its tongue, which would trigger a sensor inside the device to light up a display.

Jake Kosek, a geographer at the University of California, Berkeley, has been researching the new military uses of the honeybee. In a 2010 essay titled "Ecologies of Empire," he sees the thrust to tweak the honeybee as a way of foisting our interests on them. As he writes, “Bees have become more 'human,' in that human sentiments and interests have become inscribed in the bee’s physical and social life.”

All that said, most tests to harness the bee as a chemical sensing agent have been in a controlled environment. The difficulty in land mine detection, for instance, has been in realizing an accurate solution to track the bees and pinpoint the source of the chemical trace. A larger difficulty for researchers has been in coming to terms with the fact that insects are not quite machines. DARPA's $3 million land mine project never really took off, and one reason, DARPA said, was because the bees' “instinctive behaviors for feeding and mating prevented them from performing reliably.” The bees were being themselves.

Inscentinel couldn't get a reliable product out either. After a short period of fame, it shut down in 2013. “The science is more difficult to deliver than expected,” wrote Ivan Hoo, the former CEO of the company. The residue left behind from the project on the Internet includes a CAD model of an air conditioned "bee hotel" and "bee training room," a patent grant note complete with sketches of the bee holder, and a dormant company Twitter account fossilized with updates on Sniffer Bees. It's a glimpse of both what might have been and what might still be.