I met the first bumblebee of spring a couple of weeks ago.


I found this bee upside down, and was afraid she was dead until I touched her and saw her legs move in protest. I invited her to walk up on my keys so I could put her off to the side, away from foot traffic.  Away from death by crushing.  Bees don’t pant, they just let air into their bodies to get oxygen into their Hemolymph, which they push around the hollow cavern of their bodies.

This bee is an orphan.  She gets about 6 months to forage, feed, and mate to find a male bee to lay eggs to provide “bee-bread” pellets to the next generation next spring, that she will never know. She lays enough eggs to replace herself and her mate, after all the perils that befall larval and young bees.  Those that lay more eggs may not provide enough bee-bread for their offspring to survive, those that lay too few may see they brood killed off anyway.  The “ideal” number is always shifting, on factors which change from year to year.

A few years back her great, great, great, great grand aunts and uncles died in droves because the Basswood nectar in our neighborhood had fermented.  This made a ordinarily lucrative source of nutrition into a poison chalice.  Luckily, this was late in the season, and not every bumble bee in the neighborhood drank from it.  Similarly, most crows I hear in our area have the rounded “Caa” of the Fish Crow, not the braying “Caw” of the American crow.  Bird Flu was a real plague around here in 2004.  When we visited Atlanta earlier this month, there was a condemnation of ornamental Nandina for killing off Cedar Waxwings,  Some Waxwings were out of berries to eat from safe species, and decided to try this new berry that had been around for decades, but had never been tried by any Waxwings they knew.  They paid the price.

This bumblebee had none of this prior knowledge.  She was going to make a go of life without a single meme or even a way of transmitting it.  Different bumblebee species are solitary or semi-social, which affects how they get information about where to feed.  They don’t get information on how to feed, however.  They just know.  As I found her, she already knows how to fly, something I could never do.  I’m afraid of heights.  She also knows how to forage on the best of diverse flowers to collect nectar and pollen, a complex act involving pattern recognition and mechanical manipulation without the benefit of hands.    

What information do we just know as infants?  We also know how to feed, and we know to fixate on faces.  Some of the most critical differences between us and that bumblebee are that we have language, we cook food, we use tools, and that we have grandparents.  All of these things accelerated around 50,000 years ago, and for the 2,500 generations since we have been refining, diffusing, and diversifying our identity as humans over the face of the Earth.  Refining because we are much different than we were then, when Homo Sapiens evolved from Homo heidelbergensis 10,000 generations ago, or when Homo neanderthalensis or Homo Altai diverged from Homo heidelbergensis over 50,000 generations ago.  Diffusing because our range is much wider than H. erectus’ origin’s in East Africa, learned over a million years by H. Heidelbergensis, H. altai, H. neanderthalensis, and finally H. Sapiens.  We still bear that diversity, though we still shamble forward as a recognizable 7 billion humans.

Generations were just a clock through much of the history of human life, but it was not until we lived long enough to learn from our parents, and our parent’s parents, that we could begin to develop civilization.  The fossil record shows that before 50,000 years ago, we were much stockier and thicker boned.  The fossil record even shows when we started to wear shoes (40 kya), or started to wear clothes (sometime between 2.5 mya to 100 kya).  As we have developed technology beyond the poking stick and water leaf, we have come to rely more and more on it for our basic survival.  Clothes and fire (1.8 may) have let us become almost as hairless as mole rats. Agriculture (10 kya) and money (4 kya) have allowed us to stockpile plenty.  Utilities like electricity (1.5 cya) and sewers (7 cya) have allowed us to live miles away from the sources of our basic needs like energy and water..  

These technological immolations* have changed us into cyborgs of meat and machine, for millions of years.  The first stone axes, from as early as 3.3 mya but as recently as 2 mya, increased the force of our fists the same way the chimpanzee’s reed increased their reach.  The first spear (700 kya) allowed us to kill at a distance, but I’m sure that our evolution of modern throwing allowed us to do the same thing with rocks for 65 thousand generations before the spear.  We are not the only species to use tools, but all species that do use tools, technology, are expanding their abilities and dependencies beyond their own bodies.

These bits of cleverness only thrive and accumulate in a population where they can be spread and adopted.  The general mechanism of this spread is:

  • Identity of the thinker must be distinct
  • Thinker must be able to communicate to others
  • Others must accept the thoughts and willing to try them out
  • Others must be able to memorize those thoughts long enough to apply them

For comparison, here’s the mechanism for the spread of genetic traits :

  • Trait must be be genetically coded (Cannot inherit scars or lessons learned)**
  • Variation in genes in a breeding population (No use if everyone is the same)
  • Selective pressure on the trait (the trait must confer fitness above the rest of the population)
  • Reproductive pressure on the trait (The trait must make you sexy, directly or indirectly)

Imagine life for your 3,000 x great-grandparents 60,000 years ago.  They already had some of the foundations of us as modern humans.  Their ancestors had already advanced past throwing rocks on to jagged rocks to the identification, selection, and use of useful rocks that could hold a sharp edge, like flint.  They used these sharpened rocks to dress leather, as they had already lost most of their body hair, and many lived through winter every year.  They had even figured out textiles.   They had spears and harpoons, and made them deadlier with flint points that their ancestors had figured out.  They cooked meat to aid in digestion, and built shelters complex enough to have internal walls.  They had bead jewelry and symbolic art, and even had trade networks to get tools and materials from people they had never met.

But that was about it. The problem was, there were very few elders and there was very little teaching going on.  Because of minimal nutrition in their hunting-gathering lifestyles, they couldn’t begin having kids until their late teens, and the average life expectancy was about 30.  A 45 year old would have been ancient.  So every child was raised by parents with only their peers, their memories, and their instincts to guide them.

Some time in the next 1,000 generations, food became more plentiful and less risky.  We developed spoken language between 70 ka and 50 kya.  In this same period, we started to have grandparents. This may have been for the same cause (climate), because of (grandparents led to better fitness), or caused (having more food and communications allowed us to live long enough to become grandparents).  It was possible for parents to ask their parents for advice in parenting, and it was possible for grandparents to increase their fitness by caring for their children’s children.  It was also possible for knowledge and technology to pass from the curious to the adept to the wise.  Before grandparents, the best teachers and knowledge would come from the adept to the curious, but almost everyone died before 40 when they could become wise.

In that period, between 60 kya and 40 kya, still tens of thousands of years before agriculture, we developed the dart thrower, seafaring boats, deep sea fishing, and regular consumption of freshwater fish.  We expanded our tools from flint and stone to antler, bone, leather and wood, setting the foundations in craft to make everything we now have, including the earliest seeing needles. We started wearing shoes, making cave paintings, and carving human figurines.  With this new self-awareness, some moved from ritual burial to cremations of their dead.  I have no idea how common cremation was 40 kya, but it did indicate a shift from labor intensive to fuel intensive mortuary rituals.  I expect this started out as an honor for the few and became an entitlement for all.

Though this list seems even with our progress up to 40 kya, understand that the first list was all technological progress over 100,000 generations.  The second list was in just 1,000 generations.  The next 1,000  generations, up to the earliest development of agriculture, would see more inventions and migrations to Australia and the Americas.  These included the spear thrower, identification of constellations (useful for navigation), the earliest possible domestication of dogs, and trade over 400 mile ranges.  We figured out kiln-firing of clay, pottery lamps, using animal fat, and tally sticks (precursors to the calendar, counting, and written language).  We developed saws, braided rope and nets to control our world in food and shelter.  One of the first non-percussion musical instruments, the flute, was invented in this time in Germany (as far as we can tell from the one we found).  In cuisine, we figured out grinding stones, the mortar and pestle, flour from edible seeds, hot stone cooking, and bread making.

This brings us to 10,000 years before the agricultural boom.   20,000 years ago.  Just 1,000 generations from right now.  If you thought your grandma was quaint, we can go a ways back further..  The widespread cultivation of grain was still 500 generations in the future, in Iraq.  Our acceptors were getting the hang of it however, with popup gardens where they threw waste.  Civilization would not truly take off until people had control and certainty over their food supply.

I apologize that I haven’t conclusively shown that grandparents were transformational to human civilization.  The evidence of these very old things and their relationships will always be fragmentary.  From the perspective of the past, even the use of stone tools was transformational.  From the perspective of now, they seem altogether mundane.  When was the last time you hammered something with a rock?  I remember the first time I had Coke from a 16 ounce glass bottle.  When was the last time you had one of those?

Which brings us back to that bee.  It disappeared a couple of days after I started writing this.  The day before our last frost.  She got a jump on her siblings by emerging early, but also had to make it through that frost to really thrive.  She was on our stoop sunning herself in late winter, I assume learning to fly.  This also made her a easy morsel for yearling birds, returned from their first migration and hungry for anything they could find.

Now the Crocuses are up.  We are on our second stage daffodils.  There will be plenty of pollen and nectar for her, if she survived, flew away, and stayed warm overnight.  She knows how to forage on flowers.  The orphan knows how to survive on her own with her 6 legs and 4 wings.  We humans have forgotten, but we have grandparents to remind us.

* This started out as a typo, but I am leaving it in as a fitting verb.

** Setting aside epigenetics