Today is Thanksgiving. So let’s embrace our transatlantic cousins with a stars-and-stripes theme. After all, “The Mayflower” carrying the Pilgrim Fathers set sail in 1620 from Rotherhithe, just down-river from my Bermondsey Street apiary. And theirs was the first Thanksgiving Feast, in 1621. Honeybees arrived in New England just a year later – quite possibly from Bermondsey – and european bees soon became a tell-tale sign for native Americans of creeping colonial encroachment. And let’s not forget John Harvard, who voyaged from his native Southwark to Massachusetts in 1637, cannily ensuring with his death-bed bequest “that the Colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge.” For me, that just about sets a solid foundation for a special relationship between old Bermondsey and the New World.
But let’s fast-forward a few centuries to a grittier vision of the American Dream, glimpsed through Arthur Miller’s 1949 play “Death of A Salesman”. Willy Loman is the disillusioned Salesman – and his wife, Linda, makes a forlorn plea for individual human dignity in a post-WWII, baby-booming US of A: “So attention must be paid”, she quietly insists. Quite. So when a guy called Marcus from New York City, snazzily attired in a pork-pie hat, jeans and T-shirt, rocks up at your market stall, buys your honey and starts to enthusiastically articulate the relationship between honeybees and the “Travelling Salesman Problem” , you pay attention. I know I did.
Let’s get straight into geek mode and acronym “Travelling Salesman Problem” down to “TSP” (OK, hands up who spotted the even geekier switcheroo of a noun into a verb in that last phrase? You’re really going to enjoy the rest of this exposition!). I have to admit that when Marcus from NYC first brought up the idea that honeybees had solved the “TSP”, I was delighted. Imagine, the little beauties would dive-bomb the outstretched finger of the pesky “TS” as he reached to ring your door-bell, thus preventing the “TS” from becoming a “P”, just as you stepped into your shower. “No, that’s not it.” said Marcus from NYC.
“Do you mean they’ve finally solved the problem of whether “TSP” means Tablespoonful or Teaspoonful in cook-books?” I marvelled, “Awesome – that’s always been a killer for me. Aren’t bees wonderful ?” A glint appeared in Marcus from NYC’s gaze which stopped me in my tracks. He soon put me right….
As it turned out, “TSP” is the ne plus ultra of mathematical tough nuts and it poses the following question: “Given a list of cities and the distances between each pair of cities, what would be the shortest possible route for the travelling salesman to visit each city exactly once and return to the origin city?”. While this may sound a bit humdrum, imagine the permutation of routes which a honeybee could possibly choose between hundreds of flowers to be visited on a foraging flight (also recall “The Amazing Bee Brain” post on this blog). Then again, imagine how important TSP is at the cutting edge of our modern world, in such mission-critical functions as town-planning, logistics, the manufacture of microchips and even in DNA sequencing.
Back in 2010, it was reported that the tiny honeybee brain could outgun NASA-strength hardware in perfecting the “TSP” calculation. Well, sort of. There is no doubt that honeybees possess a sensational ability to organise their activities efficiently. Nor is there any gainsaying that honeybees demonstrate a fuel-sparing flight-path in foraging. But that observation doesn’t constitute the eureka moment for our human TSP solution. It simply means that the bees, possibly a few percentage points off algorithmic perfection, have solved the problem perfectly adequately for the own purposes. The Guardian loftily celebrated the David v. Goliath cheerleading for the brainy bees, while Geekosystem.com (a sort of gazetteer for diehards of TV’s “Big Bang Theory”) refuted the claims as “pop-science” in a slightly teen-hormone-imbalanced way. Take a look and make up your own mind.
So thank you, Marcus from NYC, for bringing “TSP” to my attention. Allow me to add a friendly observation from a grateful beekeeper, though. After buying two jars of Southwark Honey from my stall (you’d probably call it a “booth“) last Saturday, you said your fond farewells and joined the queue (sorry : “line”), for the Grimsby fishmonger. Leaving your bright pink honey-bag behind on my stall, however, means that you would have “flunked” (Gee whiz! I’m loving these “Death of A Salesman”-era Americanisms) a “TSP”-test.
As I said to Marcus from NYC after his enthralling exposition: “You learn something every day”. Which makes us all better human beings – and, some of us, quite possibly, better beekeepers. Happy Thanksgiving, Marcus from NYC !