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Thursday, 21 April 2011
Beekeeping is a three-way symbiotic mutualism. The plants get pollinated by the bees, the bees get fed from the plants' nectar (and get extra nectar for their nest), and we get some of the extra nectar as honey and also get our crops pollinated. We contribute the tilled land for the crops, the beehives, and medical care for both the plants and the bees. All round, a very satisfactory Darwinian arrangement for the three parties.
But only one of those three parties is smart enough to understand how the whole thing works, and to use that understanding deliberately to enhance or to copy the mutualism. That would be us.
We all know that leafcutter ants from the two genera Atta and Acromyrmex use the leaf-parts that they gather to farm fungi in their nests for food. Given the rich social-insect resources of bees and ants, it ought to be possible to genetically-engineer a species that farms out in the open. That is, a species that would plant a crop, tend it, sting other species who would eat it, then harvest it concentrating it in one place. We, once again, would provide the cleared land, the nest boxes, and the Medicaid.
This would be far too useful and powerful a technology to waste on mere honey. Honey has a specific energy of 13 MJ per kilogram. Vegetable oil, on the other hand, has a specific energy of 35 MJ per kilogram. Our social-insect farmers could plant, tend, and harvest an oil crop for their own benefit, the crop's benefit, and our benefit. (Bees already make wax, of course, so some of the chemistry is more-or-less written in the genes already.)
We could then use the oil in the place of petroleum. Carbon neutral, future-proof, and entirely solar powered, the oil would simply drain from the insects' nests down a network of plastic pipes to the processing factory, leaving some behind to fuel the insects in their toil...