The Story of the Honeybee and Us
By Bee Wilson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Bee Wilson
All rights reserved.
Behold the School of Sobriety, Industry and Oeconomy!
John Keys, The Practical Bee-Master (1780)
In the summer of 2003, IBM ran a lavish advertisement in the British press, citing the honeybee as a model of good business practice. 'The waggly bee dance and the responsive enterprise,' ran the headline, next to a picture of Ming Tsai, an enigmatic-looking IBM business strategist sitting casually yet formally on a green wooden chair. Bees, the ad revealed, might hold the key to transforming your retail business, assuming you own one. Bees communicate by doing 'waggle dances' to show each other where to fly to find the best nectar and pollen.
Upon arriving back at the hive, a bee with pollen-coated legs does a waggly dance for her fellow bees. The thorax motions are actually a map drawn in the air, entomologists have suggested, indicating both the direction and the distance of the pollen source.
What on earth does this have to do with IBM? Apparently, this:
Most corporations only dream about this kind of behaviour: instant, automatic, cross-enterprise communication that enables you to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself. This is the kind of sense-and-respond behaviour that defines on demand business.
There follows a lot of stuff about responding quickly to customer needs and creating a 'sense-and-respond' retail environment, before the advert reaches its punchline:
The bees know. Make your business waggle, and it will show you where the money is.
'Make your business waggle.' It's a classic piece of modern management-speak, with all the usual tics of that genre: the appeal to folk wisdom, the incomprehensible jargon, the attempt to flatter the reader's intelligence, the sheer cutesiness of it all. 'Make your business waggle.' It's as of-the-moment as smoke-free offices, Starbucks and text messaging.
But there is also something deeper going on here. Humans have long believed that they could learn about how to work by looking at the busy bees. Well before they had any inkling of the bee's waggle dance, they felt that the bees – more than any other creature – had something to teach them about industry. From ancient times, it was a commonplace that bees were wise, ingenious, social, architectural, pious and, above all, industrious beings. The difference between this and the IBM ad is that the industrious bee was not usually offered as a model for selling things. On the contrary, the bee colony, which worked so hard to store so much honey while eating so little of it itself, seemed a reproach to human avarice. Unlike the IBM waggly retail bees, the bees of traditional Western mythology were indifferent to money. Work, for them, was an end in itself, not a means to corporate profit.
'Non nobis' reads the inscription on many old pictures of beehives, meaning '[We work, but] not for ourselves': we work, but not for our own greed. The beehive is an unusually benign piece of iconography. When it appears in classical Western art, almost always in the form of a domed straw 'skep', it stands for some aspect of the goodness of work. Sometimes it denotes eloquence, because the sweetness of honey was meant to be like the sweetness of beautiful words. (The root of the word 'mellifluous' is 'mel', or honey, and 'fluus', or flowing.) Sometimes the beehive symbolizes the golden age of the past, when work was simpler and slower. But from the Renaissance onward it almost always means selfless industry.
It is not very hard to imagine how this idea may have started. Human beings become most aware of honeybees on hot summer days – days when we feel too drowsy to move, when the only sound is from the ceaseless bustle of bees, popping in and out of blossoms like frantic couriers. We particularly notice that bees are busy because of the contrast between our own afternoon indolence and their energy, as their workaholic humming disturbs our nap. They are a hive of activity, while we are a gardenful of inactivity.
How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.
So goes the hymn by Isaac Watts (1674–1748) whose title is 'Against Idleness and Mischief'. The hymn famously begins:
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
These irritatingly buzzy words are now so familiar that we can't think of the bee as anything other than busy.
But why? It was not as if bees were the only insects praised in the ancient world for being hard-working. The spider was often commended for its web-making skills. Termites and ants were revered for the way they worked together to accomplish great things. 'Go to the ant, thou sluggard', orders the Book of Proverbs; 'consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.' Yet, compared to the cult of the bee, the cult of the ant was nothing. The ants might work hard, but, at the end of it all, what do they produce? An anthill. The industry of the bee, by contrast, results in wonders as great as any produced by human civilization: the geometrical marvel of the honeycomb, and the gastronomic marvel of the honey inside. Unlike the ant's labours, the bee's industry directly increases man's happiness, so no wonder it was ranked in a class of its own. Man's adoration of the selfless labours of the bee has not itself been particularly altruistic. In fact you might call it downright self-interested. We want the bees to be 'selfless' so that they won't mind us eating their honey.
Bees, wrote the apiarist Samuel Purchas in 1657, are 'indefatigably [but] not covetously laborious, always working, but never satisfied, always toiling, but never coming to a period of their endeavours, still progressive, never at their journey's end'. Anyone who has ever stared at the swirling mass of bees in a healthy colony must agree. In the bee's world, there are no holidays, no early release for good behaviour (though some scientists have referred jokingly to the bees' 'lunchbreak', a slight lull in the activity of the colony which tends to occur around noon, probably due to a dip in the nectar levels in flowers). As a bee, you are born, you work and you die, with no interlude even for schooling. Generation after generation of worker bees learn their tasks not from moral teaching, but largely from gland development in their bodies and from hormonal signals of various kinds. Another Renaissance bee-lover, John Levett, marvelled in 1634 that the bee 'never giveth over his dayes labour from the midst of Aprill till the beginning of November, neither would he then cease, were it not for his two mortall enemies, Snow and Frost'. In fact this is not quite true. The bees may be busy from April to November, but it is not the same bees who are busy. Each worker lives for only a few weeks, but during one lifetime she will have flown afield many times.
Man is a purposeful animal, and no sooner had he admired the industriousness of the bees than he felt that he – or even better, his wife – must emulate it in some way. The ancient Greek historian and huntsman Xenophon (c. 430– c. 355 BC) was sometimes called the Athenian Bee on account of his eloquence. (Bees were associated with special powers of prophecy, poetry and speech.) Xenophon argued that Greek housewives could take a lesson or two in modesty and industry from the queen bee. He offered this dominant insect as a template from which blushing teenage brides could learn their duties: She stays in the hive and does not suffer the bees to be idle; but those whose duty it is to work outside she sends forth to their work; and whatever each of them brings in, she knows and receives it, and keeps it till it is wanted. And when the time is come to use it, she portions out the just share to each. She likewise presides over the weaving of the combs in the hive, that they may be well and quickly woven, and cares for the brood of the little ones, that it be duly reared up. And when the young bees have been duly reared and are fit to work, she sends them forth to found a colony, with a leader to guide the young adventurers.
Most of this is pure fantasy, bearing no resemblance to the life of the real queen bee. In actual bee life, the queen does not oversee the nectar-gathering, as Xenophon says she does, nor the comb-building; nor does she care for the brood after she has laid it. Except on the infrequent occasions when she leaves the hive to copulate – a lifestyle not quite so seemly for Greek matrons – she actually spends her days doing little but laying thousands of eggs. But even if most of what Xenophon said about bee life was wrong, his reference to the hive is still telling. It is an early example of the way that bees have persistently given men licence to moralize about themselves. The beehive seems to lend a kind of natural authority to exhortations to work which might otherwise sound unfair. Working like a dog suggests the burden of hard labour; but working like a bee suggests the joy and dignity of being productive.
More than 2,000 years after Xenophon, the poet William Cowper (1731–1800) was also using honeybees as a medium for moralizing about work, though in his case it was manual labourers rather than housewives who were meant to follow the example of the hive. In his poem 'The Bee and the Pineapple', Cowper tries to show how futile it is for human beings to go lusting after exotic greenhouse- raised fruit that they cannot afford. (At that time, pineapples were the luxury fruit par excellence: their spiky looks were adored by the aristocracy and barely seen by the poor.) Instead of pursuing unattainable pineapples, we should be happy with our lot, and work, if not like dogs, then like bees. Cowper has a gardener turn to the hive and say:
Poor restless bee!
I learn philosophy from thee,
I learn how just it is and wise,
To use what Providence supplies,
To leave fine titles, lordships, graces,
Rich pensions, dignities and places,
Those gifts of a superior kind,
To those for whom they were designed.
I learn that comfort dwells alone
In that which Heaven has made her own,
That fools incur no greater pain,
Than pleasures coveted in vain.
Bees were particularly useful for drumming home the message that social order came from harmonious, uncomplaining labour. Referring to the busy bees was a way of prettifying even the grimiest of human activities. London's Great Exhibition of 1851, at which Britain's status as 'the workshop of the world' was paraded for all to see, was reported in the Illustrated London News as 'The Great Gathering of the Industrious Bees':
How beautifully is the Palace of Industry represented ... where more than two hundred thousand little labourers are diligently engaged in their various daily duties, while their reigning sovereign reposes quietly in her regal apartment, attended to by her subjects with the utmost regard to her comfort and convenience.
To describe these 'little labourers' as bees was to praise them, but also to deny them individual personalities. The hive as it was imagined by Victorians could be a deeply conservative society: to paraphrase Mrs Beeton, there was a place for everyone and everyone in their place. The beehive was not just a symbol of industry in general. It also stood for industry in particular: a world in which different people were allotted different tasks and no one envied the position of anyone else.
The Division of Labour
The Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BC) was the main source for more or less everything written about bees until Renaissance times. In his pastoral poem the Georgics he idealized the charm of beekeeping and bees. Virgil noticed that, on a blossom-scented spring day, different bees spent their days in different ways – some 'busy in the fields' and others 'indoors' gluing up combs. His theme was taken up again in the Middle Ages, when bee writers really developed the theme of how bees divide up their labour. If we were to attach a reason to this we might say that the hive echoed the feudal structure of medieval Europe, in which there were those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed – all of them sinners with an allotted role in God's order which must not be questioned. In addition, medieval writers about animals were more unselfconsciously fanciful than their ancient counterparts. They were apt to see animals as hieroglyphs sent by God with moral lessons inside them for men. The whole world was composed of hidden messages, and everything held together as part of a single Creation. In this system of hieroglyphs, real animals and imaginary animals could easily get muddled up. Medieval bestiaries, or books of beasts, included winged horses alongside ordinary ones, manticores and mermaids and monoceroses as well as sea urchins and partridges. Everything meant something. Indeed, St Augustine had earlier gone so far as to state that it did not matter whether certain animals even existed, because what really mattered was what the animals signified. That seems peculiar to us now, and rather anthropocentric. On the other hand, we continue to cling unthinkingly to many of the medieval animal symbols without recognizing that this is what we are doing. The wily fox, the newly wed turtle-doves, the stubborn mule and the industrious bee are all still with us. Moreover, if the IBM 'waggly dance' advertisement is anything to go by, we are still pretty fanciful about the way that bees organize their working roles. It is just that, as our own working lives have changed, so too has our vision of work in the hive.
The leading British entomologist of honeybees, Professor Francis Ratnieks, compares the partitioning of roles in the hive to the efficiency of a modern supermarket. The shoppers, Ratnieks suggests, are the forager bees. The cashiers are the nectar-receiving bees, who hold out their tongues ready to suck up the nectar as it is regurgitated by the returning foragers. For an efficient hive, you need a good balance of foragers and receivers, just as a profitable supermarket needs a good balance of shoppers and cashiers. All too often the human supermarket gets this wrong, resulting in either rows of bored cashiers with no one to serve or, more often, great snaking queues of harassed customers all waiting for a single checkout. Yet in the hive, astonishingly, such imbalance is almost unknown. Ratnieks argues that honeybees are superior to humans in the way they partition tasks because, whereas a supermarket depends on centralized management, the honeybee colony works in a decentralized way, each forager making her own decision about which receiver will get her nectar. If there is a delay in a forager being served by one receiver bee, she will simply go to another; she will not wait, fuming and silently cursing, in a line, as the hapless human shopper does. If there are too few bee receivers, more workers will switch to this task straight away; the problem does not have to be identified by the supermarket manager and blared out over a tannoy. The way that the bees partition their work is 'simpler' than that of humans, concludes Ratnieks. 'And it works.'
The admiration which Ratnieks clearly feels for the honeybee division of labour is almost medieval in its fervour. Yet the message he takes from the hive is very unmedieval. Ratnieks's supermarket model is all about expanding individual consumer choice. Medieval writers about bees admired the 'hive of activity' just as much as Ratnieks does, but for very different reasons. Then, the bees' division of labour seemed to promote a society freed from individual greed, where everyone was happy with what he or she had. Here is how the working structure of the hive was seen by one anonymous writer of the twelfth century:
You can see bees all vying with each other in their tasks. You can see some watchful in the search for food, other showing an anxious guardianship over the hive, others on the lookout for coming showers and studying the way the clouds run together, others making wax from flowers and others collecting in their mouths the honey-water which has been intruded on the blossoms. Yet none of them is encroaching on the work of his neighbours, and none is getting his living by robberies. Would indeed that they had not themselves to fear the tricks of robbers! (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Hive by Bee Wilson. Copyright © 2004 Bee Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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