The Man and the Lion

The Man once invited the Lion to be his guest, according to John Newman’s modern fable, and received him with princely hospitality.  “The Lion had the run of a magnificent palace, in which there were many things to admire. Various subjects were represented in the fine specimens of sculpture and painting by the great masters, but the most prominent was of the Lion himself. As the Man led him from one apartment to another, he pointed out the homage which these art works paid to the importance of the Lion tribe. 


“There was however one remarkable feature in all of them, to which the Man, out of politeness, said nothing.  On one point all of the paintings and sculptures agreed : the man was  always victorious and the lion was always overcome. 


“When the Lion had finished the tour, the Man asked how what he thought of the splendors he had seen. The Lion did full justice to the riches and the wonder, but, he added, “Lions would have fared better had they been the artists.”


Historians paint on a broad canvas, ranging from  religious and civil wars, rebirths and reforms, laws and constitutions,  rebellions and revolutions,  parliaments and monarchies, liberalism and autocracy, to heroes and villains, steam and nuclear power, and local and global conflicts. Yet none of these would be recorded if honey bees held the brush, even as research out of the Universities of Oxford and London is recording mounting evidence that insects can experience a remarkable range of feelings. They can literally buzz with delight at pleasant surprises or sink into depression when bad things happen that are out of their control. They can be optimistic, cynical or frightened, and respond to pain just as  any mammal does. 


The focus of our hypothetical six legged archivist would most likely be exclusively on the environment. The first canvas might have depicted man’s controlled use of fire, perhaps 400 000 years ago, and the revolution in agriculture 10 000 years ago, in that both had an immediate effect on the daily lives of feral colonies.   (As a matter of perspective, the first of the above represents less than 1% of the total existence of honey bees in their current form.)  The first depiction of modern times might reflect the mechanization of production using coal, water and steam, the despoilation  of pristine areas of the countryside, and the abandonment of rural hives as cottagers moved to the new factories in the burgeoning cities. 


An observant bee might even have recorded how, in the soot-soiled cities of the industrial English midlands, peppered moths evolved a tone darker in color and thus blended in better with the newly blackened tree trunks.  And even though lighter colored moths prevailed once the air grew more clear and lighter,   our artist might have expressed concern that the basic tenets of industrial capitalism - unending progress and growth - were at odds with a balanced, robust, vigorous environment. Invariably this is more evident to the victims than to the perpetrators, who resort to subterfuge to continue their pursuit of riches, not least by defining economic value in terms of private property and private gain rather than in terms of communal health, environmental resilience and collective well being.  


The Achilles heel of modern economies is the exponential nature of modern growth.  Economists consider a healthy growth rate to be three per cent, which provides a doubling in output every 23 years. That’s absurd.  Imagine the economy of the US or the UK with 16 times the output in 100 years time, or 5000 times in 300 years.  That might be  why, as Kate Raworth points out in Doughnut Economics,  the one diagram in economic theory that is difficult to find is the one that depicts the long-term path of GDP growth. It also describes the limitations of the term ‘sustainability’ - how can we argue in favor of say, sustaining our current agricultural system knowing that it is leading to global desolation? 


The second industrial revolution used electric power to create mass production, the third used electronics and information technology to automate production and now a digital revolution is fusing technologies to blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres at a speed that is without historical precedent. I for one cannot keep up with the constant changes in digital technology yet I see enough to realize that, scientific marvel as it is, the speed of its growth has outpaced the necessary educational, moral and civic sensibilities to make it a solely admirable force in our civilization. Convenient as they may be, I choose not to place these hi-tech intruders into  the homes of the bees; rather both they and I practice voluntary simplicity.  


To cite David Goulson in Silent Earth : Averting the Insect Apocalypse, “Do we always have to look for a technical solution to the problems we create, when a simple, natural solution is staring us in the face?  We have wonderfully efficient pollinators already.  Let’s look after them rather than plan for their demise.” 


Comparing our current culture and society with the pre-industrial world, our bee chronicler might observe that  apparently the soul has no place in a technocratic society. The communal has been shattered.  The concept of the common good has been decimated. Greed is celebrated.  The individual is god.  The celluloid image is reality. Artistic and intellectual forces are belittled. The basest lusts are celebrated as forms of identity and self-expression, and progress is defined exclusively in terms of material advancement. As Nick Offerman writes in Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, “… (I)n modern-day America we have been encouraged more and more to be the opposite of neighborly, because there is arguably no demonstrable financial benefit to acting warmly towards our fellow humans. We have been taught it is a ‘dog-eat-dog world’ and that  ‘time is money,’ so who cares about the neighbors, and anybody else.”


Honey bees put their survival first; everything is dedicated towards the continuation of the colony.  When confronted with an impending challenge to their survival, such as winter, they invest  significant time and effort in preparing for and withstanding it. As do all other species except  human kind.  We have “'a determined commitment to irrelevance in the face of global catastrophe,” wrote George Monbiot in The Guardian on October 30th.   When faced with a chronic threat we seem to devise ingenious, if not trivial,  ways of convincing ourselves that it is not serious, that it may not even be happening.  And if we do act it is in ways that are comically ill-matched to the scale of our predicament, such as reimagining mechanical   drones to pollinate fruit trees in the absence of pollinators, rather than addressing  the fundamental issue as to why there is an absence of natural pollinators in the first place. That is like believing that reducing the use of plastic straws and plastic cups will somehow solve our environmental problems, as opposed to distracting us from the real issues involved in the manufacture, usage and disposal of plastics. 


The bees, by comparison, take what they need and use all that they take in such a way that not only is no harm done but even the most delicate of flowers is cherished and the quality of the environment is enhanced. This in part is what Jonas Salk had in mind when he wrote, “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” 


Our bee analyst would surely have noticed the alliance between these industrial mores and the agricultural revolution of the twentieth century, partly in the formation of farming conglomerates with their agri-business (as opposed to agri-culture) monopolies, and partly with the industrialized  production of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides that are ruthless in their application and mostly non-selective in their impact.  We use the term ‘decline’ when referring to insects; our bee might use the term ‘genocide,’ as does David Gouland.


A honey bee colony was long envisaged as a monarchy, first ruled by a king and, after the seventeenth century, by a queen.  Instead it is a communal organism in which, rather than having leaders, every individual responds to the immediate needs of their environment and their society in the interests of long term survival. Our bee historian might have looked on in admiration as, in the last century,  the so-called  liberal democracies confronted communist, fascist and nationalist ideologies. Today that admiration might be replaced by concern as not only in autocratic countries like Russia, China, Belarus, Hungary, Venezuela, Syria, Angola and Afghanistan,  but also in the western democracies, extreme right wing forces are using cyber media to make a comeback, in the same way Hitler used the new mediums of the microphone and the  radio to recover from the disaster of the failed Munich putsch in 1923.  But this time there is no pretense at an ideology; it is about personal power and fortune, values that are totally foreign to our bee historian.  “Have you learned nothing?” she might write?  “We evolved our system over some fifty million years, yet you think you are superior after less than three thousand?” 



Can the bees offer a solution?  A worker honey bee, on her twelfth day as a pupa, has to break out of her comfort zone by chewing through the wax that has kept her isolated and protected.  Without breaking through she cannot survive.  We too have to break through, in our case the insistent babble and trivialization of public life.  Successful advances came from those who refused to consent.  Martin Luther, Leonardo, Galileo, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Picasso and Nelson Mandela knew it.  The environmental protestors who demand systematic change, not least  Greta Thunberg,  know it.  It is primarily the younger generation who are refusing to consent. Perhaps our bee blogger will conclude that the most important lesson is that our survival, both hers and ours, depends on disobedience to a capitalistic model that places primacy on wealth and power, neither of which will regenerate an environment which is already well beyond the point of sustainability.   After all, she might ask, what is the use of hoarding money, or storing huge combs of honey,  if there is no longer an environment that allows any of us, bees and mankind,  to survive? 




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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