Honey bees. Some people love them and others fear them, but there’s no denying that they’re an important part of our lives. Honey bees, after all, make a deliciously sweet elixir that humans have harvested for thousands of years. In fact, some scientists believe that our hominid ancestors may have been able to evolve larger brains due in part to their intake of calorie-packed, easily digestible honey.
Not to mention that, as pollinators, they’re responsible – along with their fellow pollinating insects – for pollinating more than a hundred standard food crops and flowers, including celery, cashews, onions, potatoes, watermelon, and tangerines. Our diet would be remarkably less varied without the hard work of honey bees and their ilk.
But honey bees are beloved beyond the tasks we humans benefit from. Since childhood, I’ve enjoyed sitting outside and observing bees as they dart precisely from flower to flower. They’re a sign of spring – of warmer, brighter days – that lift people’s moods. And despite a socially engrained fear of their stingers, your chances of getting stung by these mostly docile insects is only 6 million to one, so it’s safe in most cases (unless you’re severely allergic) to get up close and marvel at their skill.
The multifold function and pleasure of living alongside bees also shows itself in symbols. Hindus, and ancient Egyptians and Celts associated the bee with love, royalty, and hidden wisdom. And in the Biblical text, the freed Hebrew slaves refer to the promised land as “Land of Milk and Honey,” i.e. a land of plenty.
So, when I suggest that we can learn something from the bees, I follow in a long line of people enraptured by these industrious insects.
What We Can Learn from The Honey Bees
1. No [bee] is an island
Bees are fully imbued with the skill to go about their tasks in relative independence, but they know it’s best to work in a team.
Bees switch jobs throughout their lifetime, as needed, to ensure that the hive runs efficiently. Before they become foragers in the last 2-3 weeks of their lives, they tend to the hive, working as nursemaids, caretakers, cleaners, honeycomb builders, nectar ripeners, pollen packers, and hive repairers. When they are older, they will begin the public work of collecting water, pollen, nectar, and propolis (the thick wax that holds the hive together), then working with the house bees to appropriately store and utilize their goods.
2. Always give 100%
The relationship between honey bees is not a 50/50 partnership or a competition. If a job needs to be done, any available bee will jump on it. This makes their community both incredibly efficient and harmonious in a way rarely seen in human society.
In some cases, if the Queen becomes ill or dies, a worker bee will even lay eggs to protect the genetic legacy of the colony. Though she cannot fertilize the egg, a male drone will be created through the process of parthenogenesis. The colony will still die out – after all, it needs female worker bees to thrive – but the drones may go out and mate with other colonies’ Queens, and this means that the health of the larger bee community is maintained even as the local hive dies.
3. Leave a legacy
Did you know that bees and flowers communicate with one another? Researchers at the University of Bristol found that not only could bees “read” the negative charge of plants, the bees’ relative positive charge (acquired while flying through the air) reacted with the electrical field of the plants and changed their charge for several minutes after they concluded their nectar and pollen collecting. Bees flying by effected plants would then be able to avoid them until the flower regenerated its resources.
In the words of Professor Daniel Robert: “the last thing a flower wants is to attract a bee and then fail to provide nectar; a lesson in honest advertising since bees are good learners and would soon lose interest in such unrewarding flower.”
4. Have each other’s back
If a bee is itchy, another bee won’t hesitate to jump on her back and find the source, according to Jacqueline Freeman, author of Song of Increase. And a worker bee in need of grooming will dance to signal her need for assistance until a fellow worker comes to her aid.
In addition to basic maintenance, worker bees do not hesitate to share information about the best plants using a “waggle dance” to give precise directions. Bees, through complex and patient communication, work together to ensure that their colony thrives.
Honey bees provide a model for precise, compassionate community that can be achieved only through attentiveness, communication, and hard work. Though it can be difficult when our communities and work places don’t seem fair, if we absorb these lessons as individuals, we can foster them in others, and maybe someday soon we’ll figure out that dynamic and peaceful community is as simple as learning from the honey bees.