Nerdly Musings – 4: Bumblebees and Plagiarism

The other day I was eating lunch at work, and on the wall next to me someone had compiled and pinned a list of cool nature facts to get us more interested in the world outdoors. It was mostly stuff I remember hearing before, but I was drawn to a particularly interesting factoid about our favourite little black and yellow nectar-collecting critters. It turns out that every time a bumblebee lands on a flower, it leaves behind an invisible oily footprint of chemicals that can be detected by itself and other bumblebees. The bees are so sensitive to these chemicals that they can distinguish between their own scent, the scent of a related bee (i.e. belonging to its own hive) and that of a stranger bee (source). Pretty awesome right? I get that I might be telling people something they’ve known for a while, but it made me smile when I read it. Herein lies the interesting part however: the reason bumblebees do this is to increase their success at finding unvisited flowers still swimming with nectar. The footprints act as a kind of deterrent, making other bees avoid the pre-visited flower as it has already been ‘mined of nutrients’.

When I read that, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to one of the reasons I put off writing a book for so long: I’m terrified of someone accusing me of visiting a topic that’s already been mined of all its nectar, or straight-up copying someone else’s idea. We see this kind of thing in Hollywood all the time: the endless reboots, ill-conceived sequels and the mindless regurgitation of old concepts. Nevertheless, the fear of unintentional plagiarism hangs over me like a gloomy, flower-bruising storm cloud. The thought that someone might turn around and say of something I’ve produced: “Oh yeah it’s like a darker Harry Potter” or “Meh, just a kid-friendly Bladerunner” (I haven’t actually written those, just FYI) fills me with dread. Even worse would be someone who points out that your work is almost identical to theirs, though it was completely unbeknownst to you. Maybe I’m being weird but I’d love to know if anyone else suffers with this way of thinking, and like me strives to find new flowers unsullied by the footprints of others before. My question is: how do we create our own oily footprints which let others know that an idea has already been visited not only in the realm of writing, but in films and games too? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and maybe we can blow away that dark and foreboding plagiarism cloud to allow new and untouched ideas to grow.


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