Friday, April 20, 2012

Bee the Change

A few weeks ago, my husband, who is nothing if not a rock of consistency, suddenly became enamored of the idea of becoming an urban beekeeper. This was a somewhat startling turn of events for me, as I lay claim to a near-lifelong, irrational, and somewhat pathological fear of the fuzzy little buzzers.

However, after seeing how excited he was about the notion, I didn't have the heart to tell him he couldn't have them because I'm a chicken. Plus, I was somewhat enticed by the idea of our own source of delicious honey.

We went to a local beekeeping store (who knew those existed?), bought the equipment, and ordered the bees. The hive boxes are assembled and set up in the back yard, our house is littered with beekeeping books, and I've been wildly planting stuff known to be nirvana for bees. We talk about "foundations," "smokers," "veils," and "hive tools" now as if we really know what we are doing. The bees themselves are due next week.

Interestingly, in reading about bees, we've discovered that there is a longstanding spiritual connotation to bees. Many cultures revered bees. There are ancient Sumerian tablets venerating the Bee Goddess. The prophetesses of the Oracle at Delphi were associated with bees, and their gift of prophecy is sometimes attributed to mysterious "green honey" made from particular Rhododenrons that is said to induce "expanded consciousness." Dude.

In ancient Greece, bees were seen as a symbol of resurrection. Monks kept bees and revered them as symbols of industry and chastity (out of all the tens of thousands of bees in a hive, only the Queen and a few of the male drones ever have sex, and the males die a horrible death immediately upon conclusion of the deed). Statues, golden charms, coins, and even cave paintings and hieroglyphs all point to a reverence of bees in many ancient cultures. In Europe and pre-industrial America, people regularly kept bees and considered them part of their spiritual life. There was a tradition that when someone died, one of the first tasks was to "tell the bees." Failure to do so was said to hinder the deceased in the afterlife.

The shape of a honeycomb cell, the six-sided hexagon, is one of the shapes of Sacred Geometry. A "skep," the traditional dome-like hive shape, and a bee have even appeared in a crop circle formation.

Photo credit: Lucy Pringle

Well, all this got me thinking. I wondered what it was about bees that caused all this spiritual hubbub. And after doing some more reading, I reached a conclusion. It's almost certainly not 'the answer,' but I find it instructive, and we can learn a lot about ourselves through the bees.

Bees are a model of harmonious, selfless, productive society. The Queen, far from being a "ruler" in the human sense, is really a servant to the community. She gets some special privileges, like a court of female workers who feed her and groom her and guard her from harm, because she's important to the survival of the hive. But her role as royalty is in service, not power. Her sole function in life is to lay eggs to ensure that the population of the hive continues, and if there is enough for all and some excess, that it grows.

The workers, all female as well, actually run the joint. They decide when it's time for the hive to grow, and when that decision is made, they make it so, by building on and expecting that the queen will lay eggs enough to fill the new space. They do the work--caring for the young, putting them to work when they are able, in a sort of apprenticeship program, where the young bees first learn a series of jobs in the hive, then get promoted to go out and bring home the bacon: the pollen. Workers decide if there's a need for a new queen, and when they do, the old one is out--no fuss, no muss. Workers decide when the hive is growing too big to be sustained, and when that occurs, they produce a new queen by feeding a larva special food, and when the new queen hatches, the old queen leaves, along with a swarm of workers, to make a hive elsewhere.

Each worker bee does its job to keep the hive running. Some clean the hive, some tend the young, some heat and cool the hive, and some gather the pollen and make the honey. They each work for the good of all, in an astonishingly civilized, amazingly intricate, and beautifully elegant social network that makes humans look positively savage by comparison. If any bee isn't doing what it's supposed to do--adding to the society in the way they're capable of--he or she is kicked out of the hive, and since no bee is an island, this is really bad, particularly for a creature whose only means of defense causes instant death.

In the bee world, there are a few who are lookouts--who watch for invaders--and if the alarm is sounded, they defend their hive with their lives. But they don't fight unless someone is threatening their home directly. They don't try to defend a territory proactively to counter a perceived "scarcity of resources." For example, as a beekeeper, you can set up a second hive just a few feet from an existing one, and the bees from both hives go about their business, collecting pollen, making honey. No wars. No trying to eradicate the "foreigners." They just work hard to make enough honey to sustain their hive through the winter.

Now, to be fair, bees don't place a high value on personal fulfillment and individuality. They operate with a "hive mind," completely setting aside their own 'ambitions,' to the extent any exist, in order to do what's right for the whole. So I make no claims that the bees' way is entirely suitable for people. But there are certainly some lessons.

For example, what would happen in human society if we had "leaders" who were the best, not at bossing people around or waging war, but at service to others--like the queen bee? Well, my guess--a really big shakeup in Congress and the White House, to start.

What if rank and file humans demanded of themselves and their "royalty" just what the bees demand--competence, efficiency, doing the right thing and expecting others to as well? The end of "screw you, I've got mine," corruption, greed, vacuous celebrity (bye-bye, Snooki), our self-serving entitlement culture, and about 95% of the governments in the world.

And finally, what if people decided, like the bees, that there really is 'enough' for everyone to survive just fine, if everybody works up to their capabilities, no one takes more than their share, and we all work together for the good of the whole? Wow, I think someone wrote a song about that. Of course, then someone murdered the guy who wrote it. All in all though, I think the bees might just have a thing or two to tell us about why our world is about to implode, and the direction we need to travel to stop that from happening.

No wonder Monsanto is killing off the bees.

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