“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live…” Internet users have been mis-attributing this quote to Einstein for years, demonstrating their willingness to believe in a warning from the greatest scientist of the 20th century. But what are they really worrying about: the future of humanity, the future of bees or both?
Bees trying to count “like humans”
Early in February, we discovered that bees are capable of adding up and subtracting, in other words they can perform mathematical operations. An experiment carried out by a Franco-Australian team allowed us to observe this ability. Using a Y-shaped maze, it was possible for the insects to access two corridors, at the end of one of which was sugar water and the other a bitter solution. If insects were able to make the right choice based on the mathematical operation, they could access the reward. Both operations consisted of adding blue shapes or subtracting yellow ones. According to the scientists, this experiment shows that bees are able to learn rules over the long term, to perform actions in the short term. They conclude that “Since honeybees and humans are separated by more than 400 million years of evolution, the results suggest that advanced numerical cognition may be found much more widely in nature among non-human animals than previously suspected.” We might add that previous experiments have been able to show that bees can master the concept of “zero” (we knew up till then that rhesus monkeys, vervets, a chimpanzee and an African parrot had this cognitive ability) This makes the bee a quite exceptional creature… so exceptional that scientists intend to use these results to advance thinking on AI and neurobiology.
Humans trying to count bees
From bees that can count, to “insect counting” is more than just a clever editorial segue. One of our real obsessions, the disappearance of species and respect for biodiversity are subjects that we have already dealt with on several occasions on European Scientist. Recently, the Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys study entitled “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna : A review of its drivers ” caused quite a stir. This analysis reviews 73 other studies. Its aim is “compiling all long-term insect surveys conducted over the past 40 years that are available through global peer-reviewed literature databases To that effect we performed a search on the online Web of Science database using the keywords [insect*] AND [declin*] AND [survey], which resulted in a total of 653 publications.” The findings were rather worrying and gave rise to “doom mongering” media coverage. For example, The Guardian headlines their article: “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’” and announces that insects could disappear within a century, based on the findings of the analysis cited, which states that 40% of insect species are declining and one-third are endangered. Since insects are essential to the proper functioning of our ecosystems, the authors conclude that changing the way we produce our food is essential to reverse this trend. Intensive agriculture is said to be one of the main causes of this decline, particularly due to the intensive use of certain pesticides, with urbanisation and climate change also playing significant roles.
But just as we have to be wary of the false quotation on bees misattributed to Einstein, we must point out that the study quoted above has recently been criticised by Oxford’s Clive Hambler (one of the world experts on the subject) and Peter Henderson, in a paper entitled Challenges in Measuring Global Insect Decline. The latter was also submitted to Biological Conservation, the same publication as the Sanchez-Bayo study. Now according to Hambler and Henderson, the Sanchez-Bayo study is totally biased. This is because to determine which studies to use, they looked only for articles containing the word “decline”, as a result ignoring those that showed stability or even an increase in insect populations. Another criticism relates to regional biases. The authors argue that “To obtain a general global extinction rate would require a representative sample of population changes, such as a random sample from the planet. If the sample used is spatially unrepresentative (as in Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhus, 2019) then extrapolation cannot be defended.” Finally, there are many criticisms of the rather cursory assertions about the “drivers” allegedly responsible for these species’ disappearances, particularly the inputs.
It seems much simpler for man to teach bees to count, than to count bees.
What place for man and bee?
In a previous editorial, we denounced political ecology’s utopias. These present a danger, because in the guise of a form of idealism, they tend to propose solutions that are disconnected from reality. The question that is bound to arise is that of the place of man in the animal kingdom. Now, while humanism wanted to separate out man and make him a creature apart from the rest, some thinkers today would like to deconstruct this system, or even, in the most extreme cases, remove it altogether, seeing mankind as responsible for the ecological disasters they deplore.
The fields of scientific experimentation mentioned above give us food for thought. Bees capable of adding and subtracting are a good example for comparative ethology. We see that there is a direct connection between man and bee, in this ability to manipulate mathematical signs and we have to see the existence of a continuum. To think about the nature of the latter, we refer the reader to a philosopher such as Alfred North Whitehead for whom “ the distinction between men and animals is in a sense only a difference in degree. But the extent of this degree makes all the difference. The Rubicon has been crossed”, a theory also broadly put forward by the French philosopher Raymond Ruyer. According to these two authors, the difference between animal and man is one of degree, but their “naturalism” is interesting in that it never falls into the reductionism of “bestial nature”. As a result, man with his dignity is perfectly integrated into the “cosmos”. Each of his actions can be part of this continuum, there is no discontinuity. Technological innovations are also a continuation of nature (we are thinking of biotechnology, but also smart agriculture). Armed with this philosophical vision, we are better prepared to resist the slings and arrows of ideologies that would permanently separate man from nature, either to consecrate the supremacy of the former forever, or to be forever hastening his demise in order to preserve the latter. It is entirely logical that the bee therefore needs man as much as man needs the bee.
 Scarlett R. Howard, Aurore Avarguès-Weber, Jair E. Garcia1, Andrew D. Greentree and Adrian G. Dyer,*Numerical cognition in honeybees enables addition and subtraction, Science Advances, 06 Feb 2019, Vol. 5, no. 2, http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/2/eaav0961.
 See opinion pieces by Philippe Joudrier, https://www.europeanscientist.com/fr/opinion/biodiversite-pourquoi-la-sixieme-extinction-massive-releve-de-lideologie/ and Christian Lévèque, https://www.europeanscientist.com/fr/opinion/lhomme-detruit-il-la-biodiversite/.
 Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1938), Tr. fr., Modes de Thought, Paris, Vrin, 2004.
 In an article on man according to Ruyer, Fabrice Colonna states: “Animality is not synonymous with bestial nature but foreshadows man, symbolic function is wider than discursive rationality, and the brain of the neotenic primate is the instrument of access to the world of values”, in Les études philosophiques, January 2007, PUF.