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Lessons From the Honeybee

The story starts in a small village in rural England, built from the local warm-coloured stone. As is still common in such villages, there is a pub and a village grocery shop. The latter is now run as a communal effort and sells, amongst the packets of mass-produced breakfast cereal, surplus produce from villagers’ vegetable gardens. The proceeds no doubt help keep the roof on the church, or maybe the village hall. What is most uncommon is that, next to the grocery shop, is a butchers of the sort that disappeared from most villages generations ago. Yet here it has held on. A conversation with the butcher soon shows why. This is a village that has a deep sense of itself, its place and its function.

On the shelves of the shop are jars of honey, labeled with the name of the butcher. Enquiry reveals that the beekeeper is not the butcher, as might be thought, but someone in a neighbouring village. The name, however, is there to show connection; the honey comes from the fields behind the shop. It is explained with pride that these fields have been sown as wild flower meadows. They are cut once a year for late hay, thus ensuring that the bees have access to the flowers throughout their blooming period. This year, the meadows have not been cut at all, and bees are still pollinating the late flowering plants. Thus occurs a mutual exchange; pollination the gift of life for a flower in return for nectar, the gift of life for a bee.

The discussion turns from meadows to modern industrial farming: ‘What is being sprayed on the fields?’, asks the butcher. ‘It smells when I drive past, what is it doing to our children? Is it in that honey?’ Thus the bees, through the vehicle of honey, show the connectedness of fields and food.

What we sow, we reap.

Individual bees fly over many miles in search of nectar and pollen, which is taken back to the hive to nourish and sustain what we term the colony. But here again the bees have a lesson; this is not a colony in the normal sense. Colonist chose to live together but may, if called upon, live apart. Bees are not like that. An individual bee cannot survive on its own. Living together is not an option, it is an absolute essential. The bee that we see on a flower has, at that moment, the appearance of a free-living creature. However, it is, at the same time, part of, and totally dependent on, the greater being that we term the colony. A better term is Bee (in German: Bien), with a capital letter, to reflect the unity that is the true bee organism

This organism is composed of many tens of thousands of individual bees, that takes as its outer skin the hollow of a tree, or a beekeeper’s hive. Within that skin the bees build a skeleton of waxen comb and, in this, rear the next generation of individual bees. The Bee is thus a creature that constantly renews itself, in just the same way as a mammal renews the cells of its body over time. How many of your cells have died and been replaced while you read this? The cells within your body are all connected, physically and physiologically. So it is with the Bee. Connections abound within the skin of the hive such that each individual bees know at all times the overall state of the hive. They know when the hive is needful, they know when it is sated, when it is safe and when under attack.

The next generation of bees is reared in the comb at a temperature close to mammalian body temperature, and fed bee milk. Such are the similarities between the physiology of the Bee and that of mammals that some physiologists refer to the Bee as a mammal made up of insects. That is another lesson of the Bee; things are not necessarily what they seem.

The Bee reproduces by swarming. Like an amoeba splitting in two, a cadre of bees leaves the hive with a mother queen and swirls in the air. Normally, flying bees return to precisely the spot that marks the hive entrance; move the hive and the bees return to where the entrance was before the move. Yet, in the moment that the swarm issues from the hive, many tens of thousands strong, the individual bees lose completely their attachment to their old hive and become a creature steadfast in its mission of finding a new home. This creature swirls in the air, its body many yards wide and many feet high. After a few moments, the swarm begins to contract and coalesce on a nearby branch, until a cluster of bees, perhaps several feet long, has formed. From there scout bees seek out a new home and, when one has been found, the swarm debates its suitability. If it is deemed acceptable, the swarm will once again take to the air and travel to its new abode, led by the scout bees that have found it. This new home may be several hundred yards, or even a mile or more, from the old one. Once installed, the bees immediately starts to sweat wax from their undersides to build the all-important bones of their new body – the comb within which the young will be reared and their precious food of pollen and honey will be stored.

One can wonder during this process where lie the boundaries of the creature we are observing? In the old hive the Bee has a defined skin: the walls of the hive. Thus it is in the new hive, that is gradually filled with waxen comb; but in between? Where are the boundaries of the Bee then? In concrete terms they cease to exist. One can stand in the middle of a swarm of 20,000 bees, right in its heart, the bees all around. The individual bees will not touch you; they navigate around you, yet they form a single coherent whole. This is most clearly demonstrated when a beekeeper ‘hives’ a swarm – takes the cluster from the branch and tips it gently onto a sloping plank leading up to the entrance of a new hive. The swarm does not take to the air but sends a few bees to investigate the hive entrance. If it finds it pleasing, the whole swarm flows uphill into the new hive; demonstrating in the most dramatic fashion the unity of the organism that is the Bee.

Nature is a unity too, and we are just a part. The Bee tells us to remember this in all we do.

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