The Improbable Bee / by Brandon


How does a bee find a flower? Perhaps, if it lives in a hive, another bee tells it where to go, but even that first bee needs to find the flower, and anyways most bees are solitary. So that bee flies off to forage, and if it's lucky it spots something of the right color, and that something turns out to be a flower. Not just any old flower, necessarily: Some bees are generalists, but others specialized -- for long-necked flowers, or maybe morning glories, or pea plants or penstemons.

Will they always be successful? Of course not. But there's always a chance; and so bees fly. And what distances! Out in the tarmac sea of a stadium parking lot, the center of a Utah saltpan with no plants for miles on any side, on a third-floor balcony in an industrial Brooklyn neighborhood, where there's a box of linaria: A bee will come by, with eyes so powerful he can a fringe of red, a signal of readiness, at the throats of their fingertip-size blossoms.

Soon he's doused in yellow pollen, like a celebrant of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, and carries it home. If these blooms are good, he knows, so nearby linaria might be ready, too; he can smell these with antennae sensitive enough to detect part-per-trillion concentrations, to recognize single molecules floating in air.

What are the chances of that? Maybe some enterprising postdoc or apiarist has calculated them. Whatever they are, it boggles the mind; and yet it happens, again and again, an invisible equation of uncertainty, from which calculation -- trillions upon trillions of times -- the living world blossoms around us. You can reach out and touch it. Plant a flower, and a bee will come.

I think of the technologies we would derive from bees -- all those tech-press standbys of scientists who would use their eyes to make cameras, their antennae to detect bombs, their aeronautics to make, appropriately enough, new drones. I tend to be skeptical, though this could be useful enough. But will any of these bees ever make the flowers bloom?

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