Functional Bees

Functional Bees

In June Mary and I attended a family wedding in a Redwood forest south of San Francisco, and treated ourselves to three days on the Monterey peninsular beforehand.  We drove down the spectacular highway alongside the Big Sur and, at a lunch stop overlooking the ocean, Mary observed that the bride-to-be had been fortunate to grow up in an area that was beautiful and healthy, and had clearly done the necessary work to become a functional human being. 


We tried to take a break from politics but could not avoid references to the increasing levels of anger and division in the American populace, divided as it is along political lines.  My sense is that those tenacious feelings are fueled by what is perceived to be the hypocrisy and self interest of our elected representatives, the discord between their words and actions, between their stated values and manifest practices, not least at the national level.


We know only too well how crucial a healthy environment is to the vigor, fitness and survival of a colony of honey bees.  I would suggest too that a colony is a functional family, or in terms of  mammalian nomenclature, a functional superorganism.  According to James Bradshaw, the characteristics of an effective family include the desire to cooperate and to fight fair so that differences can be negotiated; the clear communication which reflects a mutual respect for the dignity of others; levels of trust which are created by honesty; the recognition of differences and the uniqueness of each person; roles that are open and flexible, allowing for spontaneity without shame or judgement; ensuring that the needs of all are met; and working communally to resolve problems.


As the old saw suggests, children are born perfect and then they meet their parents.  Most of us are deeply affected by the community and the relationships in which we grow up, and they impact us at an age when we have neither the ability nor the discretion to choose, to say no, to the point that one consciously has to choose to reclaim one’s autonomy, one’s functionality. It is work - perhaps the most important work we can do. 


Honey bees don’t have to do this.  Not only are they born fully operative but, given a healthy environment,  they exist in a functioning society. The swarming process, for example, demonstrates the ability of the bees to negotiate differences in terms of finding a new nest site, and to do so under the life-threatening pressures of time and weather, and perhaps even of humans who feel sufficiently threatened by this natural process to arm themselves with a spray can filled with chemicals designed to kill wasps.  And the scout bees  seem not have an ego - if their choice of nest site is not strongly supported by their colleagues, they investigate instead those sites that do have greater endorsement, thus stream-lining the process.  Forager bees communicate physically in ways we know only too well, but so do the retinue of worker bees surrounding the queens, as does the larvae, emitting pheromones  when they need to be fed or capped.  The roles filled by a honey bee in her short life time are flexible, depending on the needs of the community and the available resources, and each individual seems to understand that there is dignity in work and that ultimately it is the survival of the colony which is the highest priority. 


A functional family does not mean that there are no strong emotions; rather that they are expressed constructively and with mutual respect.   The bees can be angry and defensive when their home and children are threatened, as would we, and which is appropriate. “At the Hive Entrance,” by Professor H. Storch, first published in German in 1985,  describes how much a beekeeper can learn by observing the bees on the landing board and listening to the different sounds coming from the hive, to the point that in many cases it is not necessary to open the hive to discover what is happening inside. 


Beginning in the eighteenth century we believed that we can surmount the rules of nature.  The bees remind us what we lost and what we have yet still to learn, not only in terms of our contact with the real world but also in terms of our effectiveness in a close communal setting.  As a reminder,  Bradshaw asserts that 98 per cent of American families are dysfunctional … and the other 2 per cent are liars!

Traci 02.08.2018 17:10

Hi Jeremy. I read this writing in the Pennsylvania Beekeeper newsletter. Your writing style is wonderful and so is your storytelling. Thank you for sharing.

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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