Sunday, 31 March 2013

From Sweetness to Blinding Light

When I was at primary school in Waitara we went on a  field trip to visit a hexagonally-designed house belonging to a family of bee-keepers, the Brewsters.   To say they were fixated by by all things "aparian" would be an understatement, but is turned out to be one of the sweetest trips of my childhood.

Edgar & Nettie Brewster stand at the front door of 'Norian', 36b Sanders Avenue, New Plymouth
Honey tasting certainly has a lot to commend it. As a seven year old I learned for the first time that the tins of honey we got from our local bee-keeper were just one variety and that there were several more that could be enjoyed.  It just depended on what flowers the bees were visiting at the time.

In this age when the properties of New Zealand's manuka honey are known throughout the world this revelation might seem a little strange, but at the time the darker honeys such as manuka and rewarewa were regarded as second rate to the creamy white clover honey.

The facts that bees could starve in winter and were fed supplementary sugar syrups to see them through was another fact I learnt at the time.  But the information that resonated most and has stayed with me all these years, is that the drones (male bees) are kicked out of the hive in Winter and die.  As a young male of a different species I wasn't so sure that this idea was a good one; being surplus to requirements was not something I had ever contemplated before.

This then was my first exposure to the word "drone" and its deathly connotations. Regrettably in recent years the term has come to be associated with high tech weapons that reign down death on the unsuspecting.  Am I alone in thinking that there is something inherently immoral in this type of warfare.  That a technician in the USA, or a country neighbouring a trouble spot, can monitor and wipe out a target from afar might seem a clever solution.  After all, the attacking party faces no risk as the drones are unmanned.

The problem is of course that this is an indiscriminate act of war.  The targeting can be anything but, and prone to human error.  It might save a soldier's life who is delivering the payload but it has often ended the lives of innocent civilians in the process.

I came across this sobering visualisation which shows the proliferation of drone attacks from the first recorded on in 2004.

Out of Sight Out of Mind - web site
Drone manufacturers are now facing an increased challenge as the US Military scales back its operations.  Increasingly they are turning to the manufacture of industrial and civilian drones to boost their profits.

As the ABC reports some of these flying machines are as small as a humming bird and can steer water and pesticides to crops with precision, saving farmers money while reducing environmental risk. They can inspect distant bridges, pipelines and power lines and find hurricane victims stranded on rooftops.

And they are a boon for the would-be spy as the miniaturisation of technology means that they can be manufactured to actually look like insects and hummingbirds. One such device even made it to TIME's list of the top 50 inventions for 2011 (see video below).

Privacy (or the lack of it) from these civilian drones is a major issue. The US is moving to legislate their use  and if you thought the recent News of the World media spying saga put journalism in the gutter, just think what drones will do to our private lives.

According to another recent ABC News report, professors at the University of Missouri have started a “Drone Journalism Program” to teach their students how to use drones as reporting tools!

Students “learn to fly them, and also do what reporters do: brainstorm ideas, go out and do reporting, do drone based photography and video,” professor William Allen told the reporter. “We're trying to see if this is going to be useful for journalism.”

As I write the season of winter is approaching the southern hemisphere.  I can't help but thinking that maybe the bees have the right approach when they force their drones out; sending them to a seasonal and certain death.  Perhaps man can learn a thing or two to from nature after all.
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