The Generalist

Bee Colony Collapse and the Law of Returns

My friend Richard died this year in January. Shortly after his death I submitted a paper he had written for publication in a scientific journal called Bioscience Hypotheses. The editors were interested, but they had questions. As I had contributed somewhat to Richard’s ideas, I was familiar with them and I felt I could refine the article for the editors. This I did and the paper was accepted for publication in late January. The article has finally been officially published at the journal and is available online here: Honey bee colony collapse disorder is possibly caused by a dietary pyrethrum deficiency and also on Richard’s personal website.

This paper presents a hypothesis regarding the possible cause of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, but the inspiration for it actually came from consideration regarding the controversial cancer treatment laetrile and a general principle of economics known as the Law of Returns.

The Law of Returns was first made explicit for me after studying Ludwig von Mises’¬†Human Action. Mises discusses the law in relation to economics, but it is in fact a universal law which holds for any goal-oriented action. In essence it states that: if for the realization of goal G, a given system S requires ingredient I, then for I there exists an optimum; i.e., there is a “too much”, a “too little” and a “just right”. Aristotle boiled it down to a simple rule: “everything in moderation, nothing to excess.”

Put that way, it seems a little obvious. But despite most people having an implicit understanding of it, the lack of an explicit one leads people very often to violate it. They seem to say “If a little is good, then a lot will be even better!” The reverse is also popular: “If a lot is bad, none is best!” Hence, one can always find violations in the current news; a woman, for example, who died after drinking too much water, or the off-hand rejection of a treatment for cancer because the molecule includes a cyanide group.

Thankfully, our bodies can handle small deviations one way or the other fairly well, either by filtering out when we take in too much or by breaking down the least necessary of our tissues to reuse what we don’t take in enough of (this second principle is also discussed by Mises in relation to economic science, it’s known as the Law of Marginal Utility.)¬†Still, our explicit understanding of the law can mean the difference between health and disease. After all, just what qualifies as a “toxin” or a “nutrient”? For the woman who drank too much water, the water was clearly toxic. But for the bee that consumes pyrethrum, a natural insecticide, the trade off may be resistance to parasites. The answer is not as easy as we might first think and is affected in no small part by the Law of Returns.

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