Forty thousand honeybees live above my parked car, which is often cluttered with beekeeping accoutrement that smells of wax and honey. It is common for a few bees to tag along for the ride. Beyond two or three miles and they can’t find home so they will circle a bit, tasting the air for a waft of nectar, resin, honey from a hive nearby. They can sense a hive vibrating with life that might welcome a lost bee laden with honey or pollen from the back of my car. Honeybees are a practical lot, unlike wasps that tend to chew up visitors.
A honeybee shares a mother with thousands of sisters with a random assortment of absentee sperm accumulated on mom’s one big day on the town. A bee is so fully integrated into the superlife of the three-pound hive that a solitary bee can hardly be thought to be imagined unless they accidentally drive away in a car. The bee has a tiny brain devoted to life and death issues such as where the nectar is, what the hive box looks like and her immediate job at hand. No brain synapses to waste on lingering affections, so in about three days she will not remember her sisters. The new sister will learn to dance among thousands of new kin until her her wings wear out in a month.
A worker bee lives about eight weeks collecting a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. You and I live 4,750 weeks often, without producing anything as helpful. Humans exaggerate what can be done in a season, while cynical about longer transformations. Impatient foundations often force recipients to promise transformation in three years while cynically avoiding commitment to the city-sized transformations that could be realized in a half generation. Ask any bee.
I found myself thinking about these issues when I noticed that a bee was riding with me on the four-mile drive from the hospital where I used to work to my new home on the Wake Forest University. This was my hive once—I can see my freshman door room out my office window. And while academic guard bees notice my hospital scent, I do carry the equivalent of pollen for the young ones (a new course on Leading Causes of Life). And friends from South Africa, Germany, Texas, California and even Finland with sweet nectar (ideas) that might help the hive. Here’s a link to the Baobab conference we just hosted. I’m already forgetting the old ways.
Bees don’t try to teach humans anything, given our short and unpromising evolution. But they allow us to observe and notice their practical balance between intense selflessness and short term memory. We humans exaggerate our individualism, thinking that the skin-bag holding our squishy parts and three-pound brain is a functional whole. And, opposite of bees, we nurture unhelpful affiliations long after they are are relevant to our future. A bee forgets in three days; about five years for humans. This may be a bit quick for our species.
Bees are a bit ruthless in their commitment to the future, but we should also focus on the neighborhood in which we now live and the people with whom we might thrive. I’m thinking of the tortured shore east of the Mediterranean. The sad futility of my dad’s old political party. The pathetic rending of old religious groups voting about other people’s sex. Hospital systems tethered to old therapeutic techniques instead of modern population health science. Seminaries teaching the same stuff they did 180 years ago. Universities organized the way they were when I was a freshman; for that matter, when my father was a freshman and his dad, too.
(Don’t mention these last two to my new guard bees; winter is coming and I need a hive.)