The Gift of the Bee

In 1609, Charles Butler, in The Feminine Monarchy, wrote:

Of all insects, the bees are chief, and worthily to be most admired; being the only things of that kind which are bred for the behoove of men.

Thus it has been ever since; bees are judged not by their intrinsic worth, nor by reference to their role in wider nature, but solely by reference to their utility to man. In this, as with other domestic animals, the needs of the bee are subjugated to the needs of man. Two hundred and fifty years after these words were written, just when the Victorians had outlawed the making of men into slaves for other men, allowing former slaves to throw off their shackles, a clergyman named Lorenzo Langstroth invented a new shackle for the bee: the so-called moveable frame hive. Thus came about a perversion perpetrated on the bee that has been visited upon no other animal: the very body of the creature, the comb and internal organs of the bee nest – the hive – are henceforth to be constructed in the equivalent of a set of drawers in a filing cabinet, with each file capable of being withdrawn at will by the beekeeper. The bee thus becomes an animal dissectible at the will of another, the equivalent of making the heart, lungs, uterus and so forth of a dog removable, and examinable, at the whim of the owner rather than only under dire veterinary need.

The release by the Victorians of slaves from slavery was in many ways illusory. The industrial revolution forced millions into servitude to machines, a form of slavery in all but name that extends to the present day. As individuals we disappear from view and are seen only as contributors to the great machine of ‘the economy’, in the service of which we are endlessly exhorted to become more efficient, to produce more at less cost, so that our outputs remain ‘competitive’. When not producing, we are urged to consume. After all, what good increased production without its converse, increased consumption?

So too for the bees. Just as humans have themselves become the pawns of the corporate behemoths that control the global economy, so the bee has become a mere object in the service of the same economy. The bees are the slaves of the beekeeper who is in turn a slave to the huge corporate leviathans that control governments and pervert nature. We are all truly slaves of the machine.

Yet consider the true nature of the bee. Individual bees, of which there may be 50,000 in a hive at midsummer, serve not themselves but their sisters and brothers in the hive. Asked, they will sacrifice themselves without a moment’s hesitation, not because they feel empathy for the rest of the hive, but because they are the hive. To call a hive a colony is to create a misnomer, for a colony is made of individuals who chose to live together but may, if called upon, live apart. Bees are not like this; no bee can live apart. What we see as their ‘colony’ is really their body.

Moreover, when we look at this body, in addition to the bees, we see comb, which in nature takes the form of a somewhat egg-shaped sphere. In the comb we see eggs and larvae, tended by young nurse bees; we see pollen and nectar and over all we see activity. This activity extends beyond the immediate confines of the hive into the world beyond. Individual bees course through the air above fields and gardens, literally bringing life to the flowers, for without pollination there would be no next generation. In return the bees receive nectar, pollen, propolis and water, the ingredients needed to sustain the life of the hive: life is given and life is received.

The body of the bee, in the sense of the colony as a whole, functioning inside and outside the hive, derives from, and is held together by, a myriad gossamer threads. It dances to a special tune. To see these threads and hear this tune we need to see with different eyes and hear with different ears. We need to engage parts of our being that the rational reductionist world view struggles to apprehend, believing as it does in a machine-like world. And, as we have seen, belief in a machine-like world gives rise to a machine-like world.

When we begin truly to see the bee, we begin to see different, non-destructive, ways of interacting with Nature. We see the need to change the way we interact with the world and the alternative life-creating interaction that we can, bee-like, achieve if we change our ways.

Even more valuable than honey, that insight is the true gift of the Bee.

Gareth John