Carpenter Bees and Microevolution: What the Hell Happened?

There’s a rather large flowering bush in my front yard, and right now it’s surrounded by busy, busy bees and other insects foraging for provisions. Most of these bees are large and shiny, relatively docile carpenter bees, incapable of stinging—or too preoccupied to try. They look like shiny bumble bees. I enjoy watching them up close as they interact with the bush, with each other, with me, and, surprisingly enough, not with the stray, brave honeybee that dares to venture into carpenter bee territory. This lack of territoriality struck me, and I did some reading up on carpenter bees. During my reading I heard an all-too-familiar Australian voice try to biblically defend the vast differences between carpenter bees and honey bees. Here’s a table of a few of these differences for quick comparison.

Honey Bee Carpenter Bee
Very social Tolerates social activities, sometimes behaves anti-socially towards other carpenter bees
Lives in tight-knit colonies Builds solitary or small occupancy dwellings by tunneling into wood
When threatened, will protect self and hive with stingers Males have no stingers, females have stingers but rarely use them
Very defensive against intruders Males are inquisitive about intruders and docile enough to let you hold them
Not defensive against members of its own species Males are very aggressive against other male carpenter bees

Now that you have these differences in mind, let’s take a refresher on the creationist argument about species variation.  Here’s a quote from a creationist, John D. Morris:

The small or microevolutionary changes occur by recombining existing genetic material within the group. As Gregor Mendel observed with his breeding studies on peas in the mid 1800’s, there are natural limits to genetic change. A population of organisms can vary only so much.

They call this microevolution.

In other words, variations within a species occurs within a finite range of genetic possibilities. For example, a change in bananas over time that resulted in purple fruit would be able to occur because bananas have in their DNA the genetic information required to make purple fruit. If the change over time resulted in bananas having central nervous systems and communication systems, capable of screaming in pain when animals ate them, it could happen only if bananas already had the genetic information required to make that happen. [I add this last part because creationist arguments have this unfortunate ability to define something while leaving it open for infinite possibilities.]

Back to the carpenter bees. First, I have to get Noah’s flood out of the way. Creationists are undecided about whether or not insects made it onto the ark during the flood. Here are some links for that argument. But the Noah myth is irrelevant to the point here because bees are in the bible. They are defined as territorial, chasing after you when you get too close. They will swarm their victims and sting them with their stingers. And finally—and perhaps most importantly—they make honey. Given all of these traits, we can assume that the honey bee is what they’re talking about.

The authors of the bible don’t seem to have any knowledge about relatively friendly and docile, wood-dwelling bees that don’t sting. We might also assume that since carpenter bees are curious about humans and interact with us a great deal, creationists might say the carpenter bee came about by microevolution later on. Furthermore, most carpenter bees are distributed in Southeast Asia, the Americas, and Africa, with only one or two species living in the Middle East, which would embolden the creationist claim; the carpenter bee came about after the honey bee by migrating to different regions.

If the creationist makes this claim, however, it’s claiming some really strange things about beneficial traits. In this view the carpenter bee lost its ability to sting (in males), micro evolved from being a social species to a somewhat anti-social species, lost its natural tendency to defend itself and other bees, became docile to the point of being easy prey, and began in-fighting with other males. What the hell happened to the carpenter bee??? Well, according to microevolution.

In another view, the creationist might say the carpenter bee was around all the time; many species existed pre-flood that were never written about in the bible (they might say). They might claim they survived the flood by living in wood floating on the flooded earth. If this is the case, then they are saying god made all the different bees that sting you and are really good at defending themselves, and then turned around and said, now lets make a harmless and defenseless bee (maybe as a cruel scare prank for people who are allergic to bee stings?).

No matter how a creationist defends these differences, they have to cede that the carpenter bee is vastly different from most other bees. And non-creationists might be able to explain this difference. Well, evolution explains it perfectly, but I mean to explain why the male carpenter bee has no stinger, for example.

I hypothesize that the carpenter bee’s traits are surviving transitional forms that led to modern honey bees, bumble bees, and other social and territorial bees. This is beyond the scope of any of my areas of expertise, but I think it might be a good first guess. Maybe someday this hypothesis will be tested.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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