A decepticon amongst us

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Bumble bee is arguably the most popular Transformer in the world. He is cool, funny and transforms into that sleek yellow and black sportcar everyone wants. Bumble bee is the good guy, and a superhero. When talking about autobots and decepticons, most adults wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, but let’s admit this – grossing US1 billion in movie ticket sales means something. Transformers are real superheroes and make a lot of money too.

But transformers are fiction. Let’s talk about a real transformer right here on Borneo. The wild Honey Bee is a decepticon. He is a small six-legged, winged insect, with a nasty stinger on his bum. Everybody is scared of being stung by a bee, but we all love that deliciously sweet and sticky honey they give us. It’s the healthiest sweet thing on the planet, and never goes bad. That bottle of honey in your kitchen remains unspoilt for years and years.

The honey bee is a true decepticon. A honey bee is a living organism all by itself. It flies around collecting pollen from flowers, bringing it back to its hive. There are scout-bees who go looking for new flowers, and new trees to build hives. There are soldier-bees who guard the hives, and protect their young inside. There are worker-bees who build the hives, constantly renovating and extending their homes as their families grow. All very organised. A perfect community of thousands of individuals living and functioning together.

Now here’s something else they can do. Bees can transform themselves into another lifeform. All the members of a community can come together and take to the air. They form a dense mass of flying bees, and they become one. They think as one, and move as one. Scientists have discovered that a swarm of bees is actually a single living being. These living swarms can be as small as 3,000 bees, or as large as 20,000 bees. They can travel vast distances over the forests and farmlands, from one end of Borneo to the other.

There appears to be some form of telepathic communication between all bees in one swarm. When one bee turns in flight, all the other bees also turn. They don’t bump into each other. This phenomenon is also seen in shoals of fish in the sea, and flocks of flying birds. It seems like somewhere inside the swarm there is a leader who decides to turn left, and somehow that thought is transmitted throughout the swarm. They are thinking as one being. They are one being.

The difference between honey bees and the fish shoals and bird flocks is that when they break up, and transform into their individual members, they are still able to think as one. One scout-bee who finds a meadow of flowers somehow telepathically communicates this information to other bees, who very quickly begin arriving at the new-found meadow. Simply amazing.  

This is the decepticon part of the honey bee, one huge animal made up of thousands of little animals. The super-hero part is even more staggering. As recent as about 40 years ago, honey bees were the single animal most responsible for pollinating trees, plants and crops all over the world. As much as 80% of all plants on the planet were pollinated by wild bees.

We don’t have figures for all parts of the world, but research in the United Kingdom has valued wild insect pollinators at US840 million a year. Just for that small country. It is estimated that for all the food crops feeding the 7 billion human beings on earth, only 30% are being pollinated by wild bees today. It used to be almost 90%.

So what has changed? The mighty decepticon has lost places to build its hives. Fewer and fewer suitable areas for the honey bees to build hives exist today as forests disappear. The world bee population has decreased dramatically. Other insects have taken their place, and our crops are still ok, but we are gradually losing this special creature, this living decepticon. Alas, it seems our world has less and less need for our superhero. Like in the transformer movies, when no longer needed, our superhero leaves our planet, returning to where he came from. That would be a sad day.

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