Lessons from the Bees
We have much to learn about cooperation (and love) from the bees. Indeed, saving them might just save us, writes smallholder and beekeeper Rashid Maxwell.
Honeybees have been on Earth for over 40 million years, humans around 3 million. Bees must know a thing or two. Look how they live sustainably and still produce great wealth. Look at their intelligence, which is singular and plural, individual and collective.
It is early summer. The high blue sky is fleeced with feathered cirrus. In the nearby woods blackbirds, chaffinches and warblers sing exalted descants with each other. The scent of briar-rose hangs in the air. My gaze is on a wax frame in my hands, the size of an open book. It is covered with 3,000 honeybees (Apis mellifera) in slow, incessant movement. Their glass wings glisten in the sunlight; their velvet bodies are like shadows following. They are the book I am learning to read, the words lifting off the page and teaching me by experience.
Sunlight is warming the bees and the flowers making the nectar they are collecting. Transformed into honey, it will feed the young and give the colony winter riches. These summer bees live only six weeks, the winter ones six months or more. I watch some nurse bees drawing wax from under their layered skirts to make the hanging cells that are their home, their store, their crèche and their keyboard. I watch forager bees returning with stomachs full of nectar, passing it by mouth to storekeepers, whose enzymes in their jaws refine the sugars into honey. They place it in the six-sided cells.
Other workers fan their wings to evaporate the excess moisture in the honey. More foragers arrive with baskets full of coloured pollen on their legs: yellow pollen bright as potted sunshine from dandelions in the fields above the village, pink pollen from the roadside campion, pale mauve from the cuckoo-pint beside the stream. They pass their loads to different storekeepers, who place them round the cells containing brood. This will be the protein boost for youngsters.
Page by page I move deeper into this volume of bees. Their equipment for touching and hearing and seeing and smelling is all over their bodies: bees are flying sensors. I watch the guard bees at the entrance, checking with antennae the ID of arrivals. I watch the heater bees, who can vibrate their flight muscles to generate just one degree of extra heat. These heater bees are fed by tanker bees, who ferry honey from the store frame to the brood frame. All the frames are covered by a multitude of bees and all of them can, when needed, do all of the various jobs.
Some appear to have an urgent destination. Others seem to amble as though window shopping. Still others clean the thoroughfares, groom themselves, pick up casual labour, or stand along a line of open cells, heads down, serious drinkers at a bar. A few male drones promenade through the crowds like men in uniform: large, proud and pushy. Their ambitions and aims in life are not to shack up with the choicest of these 50,000 females, but to find a virgin queen and die in the act of love. Their penises will detach and take their guts with them. Drones are few, and free to roam through any colony.
Ahh! At last I see her. The queen. Without this vital being, the colony will die. She is the focus, and yet can’t be called the ruler. She has position but no power. She is seen as a slightly elongated worker bee, sleek, surrounded by a retinue who feed her and spread her pheromones, their ID, around the colony. She is always beautiful to the lover of bees. I watch her trail across the cells, back and forth, checking each has life within. She finds an empty cell. She hesitates, then backs her smooth striped abdomen into it. And lays an egg. She can choose whether it be male or female. Later, when the egg becomes a larva, a newly hatched young bee will place food in its cell and make a wax cap over it. Then the larva will quietly metamorphose, undisturbed, into a bee.
I could watch forever as this complex mesh of life unfolds. But now the amber-coloured hum has moved a half-tone up the octave, a signal that my teachers need to be alone again. Returning foragers and other worker bees are circling in a cloud above the hive. Bees collectively work together just as our legs, eyes, lungs and stomachs do. They can collectively agree to move the swarm to this or that new hollow tree and on when to throw the drones out in autumn. And individually they are quick to learn the best route through a maze, or to recognise a person.
This points us to the very heart of our human dilemma. How can we live sustainably and harmoniously as both society and individuals? How can we be whole persons, true to our unique inner natures, and still be part of the greater human world around? How can we be one and many?
My logical mind fragments in this swirling cloud of sentience. Time has passed and in this time there’s been no time. The bees have brought me to a glimpse beyond the boundaries of me and mine to a universe unbounded. They have taken me to what sportspeople call the Zone – the place where everything is easy, everything right. My head is in the cloud of bees. My feet stay on the ground.
The autumn equinox arrives. As I stand before the hive, a thousand questions swarm up in me. What can we learn from bees? How can we halt their calamitous decline? Help them live another 40 million years?
Low sun slants across the apiary. The coming and going round the hive has waned. The bees are more defensive now. They have a lot to lose at this time of year. Six months of stores and a queen who cannot be replaced before the next spring.
When talking of our sorry human history of wars and our patterns of exploiting and impoverishing our surroundings, we used to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, you can’t change human nature.” Now the talk is different. Recent neuro-scientific research shows that human nature does not have to change. The human animal is hard-wired for empathy and cooperation. We are capable of living as the honeybees do, harmoniously and productively. It is only our conditioning, the learned behaviour of our egos, that causes us to ruin our environments and drag ourselves through minefields of unending strife. It is our egos that we have to change.
“We live in an ailing troubled treadmill of a world,” wrote Michael Duncan, my old bee-master. In his book The Wild Garden and the Honey Bee he invites us to step into a parallel, unnoticed world of light, tranquillity and sweetness. Into the eternal rhythms and harmonies. He concludes, “Saving our bees can save our sanity.”
Yes! For the survival of the human race, bees and sanity need saving. One in every three mouthfuls we eat is food pollinated by the bees. But how do we save bees with our present levels of insanity? We have come to treat these delicate flying benefactors abominably, unnaturally. We interfere in their lives continually. We take their hard-earned stores and feed them junk food instead. We artificially inseminate their queens and cut off their wings. We overcrowd our apiaries and then need to dose the bees with cocktails of ‘medicaments’. We trick a hive into thinking the queen has swarmed, to multiply our stocks. We knock them off their combs with powerful air blowers. We haul bees round the countryside to pollinate a crop where every other form of life has just been chemically wiped out. Above all, we decimate the habitats that nourish bees.
I think now of the ways in which we humans set up systems that are unsustainable for the sake of short-term gains; and how we henceforth suffer long-term losses. I wonder how the bees, colonial creatures, are relevant to us, a pack species with alpha males? Would healing ourselves, I ask myself, allow our troubled treadmill of a world to heal itself? As Einstein said, the mind that creates the problem cannot be the one that solves it.
Right now something big is happening in the world.
Back in the seventies I travelled to India. Our sixties aspirations of a peaceful, better society were strangled in their cradle by the way things were established. Now, once again, there is a questioning and crumbling of the global institutions: political, economic, social, religious and environmental. Now, again, there is a questioning of how we live and why.
India and the East have always known the dangers of the ego. A colony of individual bees works perfectly because no bee has an ego. Ego is the identity we build up for ourselves from childhood. It marks us out as different from our siblings and peers. It mediates between our inner and outer worlds. Those are its useful functions. Its uselessness is in how it drives us to compete when collaboration would be the right, and indeed only, way to go. Ego makes unnecessary distinctions and conceits.
However, ego is not who we really are. It is the persona we present to the world. What we have learned to be. Here in the West we have spent the last 500 years exploring the outer worlds of chemistry, biology, astronomy, psychology and physics, with, as can be seen, extraordinary results. Yet how many of us have truly explored the explorer? Or even thought about it? By contrast, India, for the last 5,000 years, has deployed its best and brightest exploring inner space, the space beyond the ego.
The ancient Greeks once understood the necessity of this. ‘Know Thyself’ was carved above the temple door at Delphi, the seedbed of our culture. The East has finely honed its scientific technology and knowledge for advancing self-discovery. Meditation is the tool for stepping away from the ego. It is returning to the ground of being from which existence springs. It is the wave remembering that it is not different from the ocean.
In a recent survey of successful people in many different fields, all spoke about their moments in the Zone, their moments of inspiration. It often happens to them when they are doing nothing; on holiday, in the shower or watching the sun set. These are, indeed, ways of meditation, just as the heel of your shoe is one way of hammering in a nail. The fact is that meditation is a tried and tested tool to do the job of emptying the mind, stilling the ego so that inspiration and true self-awareness can appear. Self-awareness shows that we are not lonely islands in a sea of chaos. We are both the ocean and the drop of water, the wave’s ripple and the silent depths.
Bees are a benign body untroubled by personal preference. Their hanging combs of brood and honey stores can be our stairway to that place of freedom and detachment, of harmony and sweetness. I stop by the hives on a damp winter morning. Bees need to be bees as love needs to love. Both endure all trials.
I place my ear to the wood. I hear a soft murmuring within
You can see an exhibition of his artwork from 4 -15 May, 2012 at the Ariel Gallery, King Edward VI Community College, Totnes.