In giving recognition and love to the bee, we are doing no more than honouring our own beholdeness to this wonderful creature.
What is a bee colony? If, rather than seeing it as a box of insects, we see it as a single complex organism –the Bee or, in German, Bien– the further question is prompted: where are the boundaries of this organism? Where is its edge? Where does it start and where does it end?
When we look at bees in a hive, we can say that the hive itself forms a boundary, a skin, a protective outer shell. Inside that shell is a creature made up of thousands of individual bees and waxen combs, the wax having been secreted by the bees themselves. Within those combs are immature bees, honey, bee bread and so forth. Thus is constituted the Bee.
Individual bees leave the hive to collect nectar, which is transformed into honey, and pollen, which is transformed into bee bread. As the foraging bees leave the hive, one can envisage this as the Bee reaching out into its surroundings to collect food. The individual bees that one sees on flowers are parts of the whole Bee. Moreover, whilst a bee on a flower may, at that moment, be physically separate from the hive from which it flew, it is quite incapable of functioning in the absence of that greater whole. Everything it does is done as part of the whole, as part of the Bee, even when it is foraging a mile or more from the hive. The physical boundary of the beehive is not the functional boundary of the Bee. Standing in a garden that contains a beehive in mid summer, one is, in a sense, inside the Bee, as individual bees forage all around one.
The Bee reproduces by swarming. A swarm occurs when a subset of the bees leaves the physical confines of the hive. These bees swirl away from the hive in a smoke-like cloud that can be many tens of feet high and up to 20 yards across. The swarm drifts on the wind with edges poorly defined, as bees move away from the main cloud and then back toward it. Where now are the edges of the Bee, for this is a truly disembodied organism. Yet every one of the individual bees knows where the centre of the organism lies, and that centre is a single bee, the queen. When the queen alights on a branch or fence post, the whole cloud of bees gradually condenses around her. What once filled a space of many cubic yards, is now a condensed mass of warm life. Inserting one’s fingers into it is like inserting one’s fingers into the coat of a long-haired dog; it is warm and soft to the touch.
The resting swarm seeks a new abode and, once found, it departs thereto and creates a new Bee, complete with comb and all that goes with it. The part of the Bee that left the old hive and became disembodied has now re-embodied itself: two Bees exist where previously there was one.
As one becomes truly immersed in such matters, for example standing in the middle of a swarm of perhaps 20,000 bees, one realizes that the Bee is a creature that pays little heed to human conceptions of edges or boundaries. It is truly unbounded, endless.