The Zen of Beekeeping



March 20 was the United Nations International Day of Happiness,  At one end of the scale UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, observed that “The pursuit of happiness is serious business.” At the other end was Keshav Shiwakoti, a former communist revolutionary from a small village in the high mountains of eastern Nepal, one of seven children, who grew up in stark poverty. He moved to Kathmandu in search of employment, learned English and became a high-end cook specializing in European cuisine. "The small, fleeting moments make me happy,” he said, “like the child I just saw on the street being breast-fed by her mother, or watching my baby goats play. It's the joy in sunshine or rain. Sometimes I cry because I feel such great happiness."


Sarah van Gelder, writing  in Sustainable Happiness : Live Simply, Live Well, Make A Difference, stresses that there is confusion as to what sustainable happiness looks like, sounds like and feels like, at least here in the USA. 


In the 1920’s business leaders worried that Americans had all the appliances and consumer goods they wanted and that if they spent time enjoying life rather than working more and buying more, the economy would stagnate.  Thus the advertising industry joined forces with Freudian psychologists to link our universal desires for status, love and self esteem with the new gospel of consumerism.  


The postwar period was considered an economic success - growth as measured by GDP rose steadily and the gap between rich and poor diminished.  But in the 1970’s wages stagnated and purchasing diminished.  The result was the proliferation of credit cards so that consumers could spend money they did not have to keep the economy  moving.  But buying ‘stuff’ has consequences. There is the burden of debt that goes with a bigger house or a new car, the ‘buyer’s high’ (that initial exuberance that follows a big purchase, spikes and then disappears, but which can be addictive,) and the extra work hours needed to pay off the debt with less time for friends and family. 


Advertisers tell us unrelentingly that shangri-la is one purchase way - plastic surgery, anti-depressants, a holiday home.  Yet for the majority of the population, on limited incomes, the implication is that happiness is out of reach, that they are falling short of the good life, and that somehow it is their fault.  


It needs to be stressed that the internet has created a historically unique situation. Never before has there been such easy, uncontrolled, unlimited access to so many different products and opinions; never before have marketeers, as well as zealots, had access to such an audience.   Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the West, in combination with potentially catastrophic climate change, is the recovery of enlightened values in the face of rampant technological advances driven more by profit than by civility. Curiously one of the most eloquent spokesperson for such a recovery is Monica Lewinsky in a TED talk titled The Price of Shame.


"Through our scientific and technological genius,” argued Martin Luther King Jr,  “we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” 


Van Gelder suggests that sustainable happiness is built on two pillars - a vibrant and fair society and a healthy natural world. It endures through good times and bad because it starts with the fundamental aspirations of being human.  It cannot come from a quick fix and it cannot be achieved at the expense of others.  It is available to everyone and because it begins by assuring that each of us can obtain a basic level of material security, after which more ‘stuff ‘is not the key,  it does not have to cost the planet. 


 And let’s understand that Facebook does not build community; indeed a 2014 study of American college students showed that their level of empathy was on average 40% lower than their peers of the previous generation. 


Sustainable happiness comes from loving relationships, thriving communities and meaningful work, which in turn stimulate positive emotions like love, gratitude, respect and appreciation.  These are hardly new objectives; they have been the focus of most of the world’s major religions for a thousand years or more, and I would suggest that they can be found in the process of managing honey bees, who offer some guidelines as to how to achieve them.  


 Nikiah Seeds, as cited in Mark Winston’s book, Bee Time, relates three clear messages from the bees.  First, the need to pay more attention to the environment that they, and we, live in; secondly, to be calm, to be still, to take a breath and slow down (what Dennis Vanengelsdorp has called ‘the zen of beekeeping;’) and thirdly, a hive is not a set of individuals so much as the consciousness of one collective group referred to as a superorganism


I’m don’t want to anthropomorphize honey bees by describing them as happy, yet they exist best in a vibrant, shared community, and as they go about their work, which is life-creating, not so much as a leaf is harmed.  By the act of pollination bees literally connect one generation of plants to the next and enhance the continuation of a healthy ecology.  We too need to consider ourselves a connectors, part of a chain that passes on civil values and and a sense of belonging both to each other and to the generations to come. 


We need consciously to become civilians again, rather than consumers. First, we can choose to do no harm, which might mean choosing not to publish, look at, read, support anything that demeans the inherent worth and dignity of other people.  We can work to re-build meaningful communities within a more equitable society - more equitable both in an economic sense and in terms of the empowerment we all have to determine our own lives.  We can protect the integrity of the natural world; it is an illusion to pretend that humans are separate and apart from the living world.  Rather our future is tied to the fate of the planet : a healthy earth means clean water, wholesome food, a stable climate and the possibility of sustainable happiness and, dare I say it, thriving honey bees, for generations to come. 


We can speak out against abuse in all of its forms,  welcome the gifts of everyone in our community,  and develop a mindset that cultivates basic human qualities like gratitude, appreciation, compassion and love while refusing to be controlled by fear and power. 


Is it easy?  Absolutely not.  Is it likely to happen?  The cynic will quickly say no, but it is more likely to succeed if these behaviors could be modeled by our current authorities, starting with those in positions of power, not least the politicians and the media. And if they refuse to lead from above we can lead from below, with individuals making decisions that collectively will change the world ... after all that is the way honey bees do it.   We did it with tobacco and cigarettes and we can do it again. 


How different it would be if children were to witness countless acts of loving kindness every day rather than the tirade of random acts of violence, verbal abuse and endless advertisements? 


Honey bees remind us that only by working together with nature can we guarantee our prosperity and survival, and yes, our happiness, in humanity’s largest hive, our planet. 



Clare 17.05.2015 17:05


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my