Learning from the Bees, Part II

Anyone following the spread of colony collapse disorder among the world's honeybees over the past two years is encouraged by the recent abatement, slight though it may be, of that pernicious plague.

At the same time, scientists, beekeepers, honey-lovers and people who like strawberries remain at best guardedly optimistic. Even if the epidemic is slowing and some new colonies are thriving, no one is quite sure what caused all this in the first place.

The parallels with the present economic crisis are fascinating, except that we're obviously still a long, long way from seeing production — of honey, cars, computers or anything else — move upward again.

As word of the honeybee crisis spread on the Internet and other news outlets, a slew of putative experts offered their take on the likely cause. Everything from cell phones to pesticides to global warming to divine judgment was said to be at the root of the problem.

The most sophisticated analysts posited an assortment of causes, none of which in itself would have been catastrophic but which together, combining in a “perfect storm” — that clever but increasingly overused metaphor — were devastating in their effect.

On the opposite side of the debate have been those who claim either that (1) there is no crisis, or (2) there is a crisis, but it's a naturally occurring one. Proponents of the former either dislike honey, are afraid of bees or are simply in denial. Those who hold to the latter see colony collapse disorder as part of the normal cycle of expansion and contraction you'd find in any insect population, or in a population of any living species.

Now let's move the discussion from Apis mellifera to Homo economicus. Both species live in highly structured societies, practice division of labor, organize themselves to convert raw materials into valuable commodities and let the women do most of the work.

Some say our species's current economic calamity has One Big Cause: greedy lenders, undisciplined borrowers, fat-cat CEOs, free market ideologues, vote-hungry legislators or, to name names, Alan Greenspan, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush — take your choice.

Others say the problem is multi-causal — another nice word that your kids will be using soon. And, inevitably, a number of the multi-causalists — at least those appearing on cable news panels or cranking out blogs — bring up the Perfect Storm theory.

As attractive as the analogy may be, there's always been something about the Perfect Storm theory that reminds me of astrology — you know, the idea that the once-in-a-millennium alignment of Mars, Jupiter, the Moon and the seventh star of the constellation Orion means you're about to get a raise or that now is the most auspicious time to buy a plasma-screen TV.

Still, it only makes sense that, with anything as complex as the global economy, there'd be more than a single cause for a system-wide slowdown such as we're seeing today.

The main reason any of this matters is that some from the Natural Phenomenon school are saying we just need to ride out the storm, that the boat will eventually right itself. In this, they're not much different from the Crisis, What Crisis? school, if that school is indeed still in session at all.

If these folks — and my home state's governor, Mark Sanford, is among the most vocal of them — could hear how much they sound like the social Darwinists of times past, they'd shudder. Or at least I hope they would.

To finish with the nautical metaphor, when the ship is floundering, you do indeed have to ride out the storm, but that doesn't mean you don't bother to bail the water from the hold, that you refuse offers of rescue or that you don't issue lifejackets.

Here's where we and the honeybees part company. Those bee colonies may in fact need purging so that stronger queens can emerge and produce healthier workers, all for the collective good and in the long-term interest of the species. But we're not insects. We don't purge people, and we don't leave jobless men and women — whatever the cause of their plight — without the wherewithal to get back on their feet.

The hive is ruled by a tough code, just as there is such a thing as the law of the jungle. But we humans are not bound by either.