Honeybees are the most successful species of the most recent thirty million years. The honeybee in the fossil record is essentially the same as you can find on your nearest batch of clover. Humans, inexplicably proud of our brief ten thousand years, should pause in wonder. We are doing poorly as a species, unlikely to see more than a few generations. Ironically, is common to read stories on the human internet about the demise of the honeybee! These stories are based on the widespread collapse of commercial hive operations, which often ship hundreds, even thousands, of hives on trucks to pollinate vast almond orchards. The bees die by the billions as disease spreads easily in the unnaturally weakened hives, especially from the dreaded varroa mite—the “destructor.”
Dr. Thomas Seeley notes that in nature, hives are usually dispersed two or three per square mile and seem to be rapidly adapting the behavior to resist the mite. Smart money would be on the honeybee to outlive humans by another several million years.
So perhaps we should pause and ask what we might learn from the bees about ourselves. Bees are highly evolved with every body part honed to perfection. My favorite is the middle leg joint which has a little notch through which the bee pulls the antennae to clean them when they become clogged with pollen. My knees barely permit tennis.
It is not the body parts that teach us; we are stuck with two legs and no wings. In any case, you can’t build a strategy on what we do not have. What do we have?
The main distinctive of the honeybee is not its body, but the wonderous social structure of the hive. The hive—the same 3-pound weight as a human brain—is social, intelligent and highly adaptive. It makes complex decisions, including where and when to send out the mother and half the workers create a whole new hive. For 30 million years in a row they have made that decision with stunning success. Its most experienced foragers switch from looking for the daily nectar to become scouts or, I like to think, wayfinders. They find the way, help the hive decide and then literally lead them. They couldn’t find our home; we need our own wayfinders.
What do we two-leggers have to work with as we face a tougher challenge– finding a new way to live on the one and only planet we will ever have. Despite the fantasies of a handful of delusional narcissists with so much money they can’t think straight, we can’t go anywhere. Mars? No honeybee would think about it for a nano second.
Honeybees have a vast advantage in that their social life emerges from a shared purpose every single bee will give their life for. Just this afternoon I noticed as a bumble bee found its way into my backyard Warre’ hive, which has an observation window that allowed me to watch her being chased by a guard bee a tenth its size. Humans, cursed with social media can no longer distinguish common threats, easily distracted by individualized fantasies and fears. Bees never take their eye off their common future.
Humans do have Spirit, which some think gives us the capacity for wisdom, social imagination and common courage when facing a true discontinuity as we are now. No hardwired species would have a chance. We still do because we have Spirit, which gives us the subsidiary capacities for lamenting the lost beauties and then deep accountability for making the choices that lead to life. We can do that and have in other times of radical challenge. It is not enough to be homo sapiens, or even as we like to claim homo sapiens sapiens ( the species that knows it knows). Our only hope is to claim our capacity as homo sapiens sanctus-the Spirited species. That one might be capable of metanoia—the Great Turning so obviously required.
A tiny step in the Great Turning happens these next two Wednesdays as some wayfinders gather on Zoom for a workshop based on a book under construction. I’m delighted to be doing this with Threshold Retreat and Farms, itself a worthy harbinger of the possible. We’ll also gather in July at the farm for some in person mingling with the honeybees. We’ll help each other be a little less afraid of our wonderful world and a bit more clear about how we might live with it—especially the magnificent honeybees.
Register here. The $75 goes entirely to Threshold Retreat and Farms, of course. I’ll even sweeten the offer by making sure that anyone who registers gets a pound of the wonderful single hive vintage honey from Warthog From Hell Honey—made by fierce southern Italian bees on our porch. If the registration keeps you away, let me know and we’ll find a way, of course.