The Grandmother Hypothesis

Chronologically there appears to be two ways to compare the life spans of honey bees and humans.  The first is to contrast the period of gestation with the working life.  In this way a worker bee spends approximately 21 days in the cell, 28 days in the hive and 14 days as a forager.  Roughly speaking, that is 1/3 of her  lifetime in the cell, 1/2 in the hive, and 1/4 foraging.   One could argue that we spend 9 months in the womb, although unlike the bee we emerge vulnerable and dependent; it might be more accurate to say that we spend the first quarter of our life in gestation, half in the work force in which we are expected both to contribute to the colony and to forage for ourselves and our family,  and the final 12 years in retirement, the original focus of which was to help care for and transmit the culture to the younger generation.  


The second way is to compare gestation v total life span.  Thus a honey bee spends about 1/3 of her life time from egg to emergent pupa, and if we accept the average human life span as 77 years, and extend the gestation period to include tertiary education, we too spend almost 1/3 of our time preparing for the rest of our lives.


This calculation was provoked by an essay titled Vulnerable Yet Vital, written by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, in which she argues for the vital role that grand-parenting plays in our evolutionary story.  As one who frequently probes his role as a grandfather, my immediate question was, can the role of worker bees in tending to the eggs, larvae and pupae be seen as a form of grand parenting?


All life forms are shaped by the forces of evolution, which select organisms based on their ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment. An  evolutionary enigma, emphasized by a pandemic which reminds us how much we need to take care of the young and the old, is why we have evolved to be so vulnerable and helpless for long stretches of our lives, unlike say honey bees. We in in the prime of our lives, put significant time and energy into caring for those who are not yet, or no longer, productive? Similarly, younger honey bees devote themselves to the care of the brood, in which their very survival as a colony is invested, but older bees literally work until they drop. 


On an evolutionary timescale Homo sapiens emerged relatively recently, with  varied sources of caregiving to deal with their vulnerable  babies, including alloparents (other people who help to raise children) such as post-menopausal grandmothers. Incidentally we are the only mammals who  outlive our reproductive capacity.  One idea is that our long, protected childhood gives us a chance to develop the skills we need to thrive as adults, namely to learn and invent, to communicate and cooperate, and to create and transmit culture.   “If childhood is designed to enhance learning,” Dr. Gopnik writes,”extending that period would be a good strategy for a species that needs to learn more.”  Thus, she argues, there is an intimate relationship between our vulnerabilities and our greatest strengths.



Children are especially motivated to explore their environment   Rather than imitate the cosmopolitan ways that adults acquire knowledge, children are generally better at exploring, the success of which depends partly on caring adults and partly  on the cues that indicate how much care they will get. When young animals detect that they are cared for, they take their time growing up and invest in large brains with the consequent enhanced learning. Indications that care is in short supply might lead to a different ‘live fast, die young’ pattern of development, one that is less intelligent but requires less caregiving and is better adapted to a harsh environment.


For humans, tribal elders appear to have played a crucial role in this evolution. The anthropologist Kristen Hawkes has labeled this ‘the grandmother hypothesis’, and has shown that, in forager cultures, post-menopausal grandmothers are a crucial resource, especially for toddlers. Since humans have babies at relatively short intervals, a mother may well  be nursing an infant even while the older sibling still needs significant attention.


This sharing of responsibility to raise children necessitated social interaction, communication and cooperation,  Yet it is more than this.   Traditionally, anthropologists have argued that humans cooperated in order to hunt more effectively - relatively weak men, in cooperation, could defeat a larger and more powerful animal.  But recent studies of forager cultures suggest that grandmothers quietly digging up roots and tubers not only provided more calories than did the hunters but they also talked as they toiled and, with their charges near by, passed on information from one generation to another, with which came the transmission of cultural norms and mores. Grandparents may not have been as strong or as effective hunters as the 20-year-olds, but they were more likely to be teachers. Several studies suggest that we get more gratified, more at ease,  as we age,  and stay that way as long as we remain healthy. Losing the single-minded drive of our middle years might actually make us better suited to the role of caretakers and teachers, guardians of tradition and bearers of wisdom.


Multiple caregivers pose a challenge for babies, too. Before they are a year old, babies are socially adept, not least at attracting attention and charming adults into taking care of them,  thus beginning the social sensitivity important in adult life. A longer, smarter, more social childhood combined with an extended old age allows for the development of more skilled adults, who produce more calories, provide  more care and cooperation, and so allow for an even longer, smarter and more social childhood in the next generation.


So, childhood and old age – those vulnerable, unproductive periods of our lives – turn out, biologically, to be the key to many of our most valuable, deeply human capacities.

The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the importance and difficulty of caring for those at the beginning and end of their lives. And we have to ask, with 15 months of covid-forced quarantine, will we see a generation of adults who are socially impoverished?  Nor were we necessarily doing a very good job of this even before the virus – especially in the richest countries on Earth. Not only do childcare and eldercare workers have little pay and less status, but we isolate children and older people from each other and from the rest of us. Once the pandemic is over, suggests Dr. Gopnik,  “Perhaps we can begin to appreciate the young, brilliant and fragile human learners, as well as their wise, vulnerable, older human teachers – and genuinely bring the grandchildren and grandparents back together.”


That answers one question - my potential role as a grandfather - but what about the bees? Can the role of worker bees in tending to the eggs, larvae and pupae be seen as a form of grand parenting?  Sadly no.  Much as we tend to anthropomorphize bees, the queen shows no maternal instinct and the worker bees show no signs of emotion towards their charges.  The successful gestation of a bee is based primarily on the provision of resources such as bee bread to the larvae by worker bees. The larvae and pupae are not in a form that is able to communicate and socially interact, and on emergence they get straight to work. Like them, we reach a state of physical maturity one third of the way into our lives;  unlike them, it is at that point that our emotional growth begins in earnest.  Meanwhile the elder bees  are so focused on foraging for the resources essential to the survival of the colony that they have minimal if any interaction with the young. 


Bees are driven by genetics.  There may be minor behavioral differences but there is no room for emotion or culture in a bee colony.  Even as that simplifies life immensely, I rather like the challenge that grand parenting presents :  to be a caretaker and a teacher, a guardian of tradition and a bearer of wisdom.


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27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my