For so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armèd in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds;
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor. (1.2.186)
– Shakespeare, Heny V – circa 1599 A.D. [Source]
Memorialized in Shakespeare’s Henry V is an ancient notion: that hidden somehow in the ordered microcosm of an industrious beehive is the secret to an ordered human society, that through the division of labor and the adoption of certain social roles and specializations, we can work together to achieve an abundant free-flowing sweetness which nourishes all…
Shakespeare’s example is one of a long list of cultural artifacts which have been handed down to us by our ancestors which reflects the insights, ideas, intuitions, understandings, visions, fantasies and projections which honey bees with their sweet offerings have engendered throughout history…
In humans we call it “society”, but in the world of bees, we use the word super-organism:
A superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. This is usually meant to be a social unit of eusocial animals, where division of labour is highly specialised and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for extended periods of time. Ants are the best-known example of such a superorganism, while the naked mole rat is a famous example of the eusocial mammal. The technical definition of a superorganism is “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective,” phenomena being any activity “the hive wants” such as ants collecting food or bees choosing a new nest site.
The myriad types of hives which are in current use today, or which have been historically used in different regions or by different cultures provides ample evidence of the many methods we may take to achieve “societal sweetness” through the healthy expression of humans partnering with honeybees:
And people continue to look at bees for clues about how we might improve our own societies:
Honeybees make decisions collectively–and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. A remarkable and richly illustrated account of scientific discovery, Honeybee Democracy brings together, for the first time, decades of Seeley’s pioneering research to tell the amazing story of house hunting and democratic debate among the honeybees.
In the late spring and early summer, as a bee colony becomes overcrowded, a third of the hive stays behind and rears a new queen, while a swarm of thousands departs with the old queen to produce a daughter colony. Seeley describes how these bees evaluate potential nest sites, advertise their discoveries to one another, engage in open deliberation, choose a final site, and navigate together–as a swirling cloud of bees–to their new home. Seeley investigates how evolution has honed the decision-making methods of honeybees over millions of years, and he considers similarities between the ways that bee swarms and primate brains process information. He concludes that what works well for bees can also work well for people: any decision-making group should consist of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect, a leader’s influence should be minimized, debate should be relied upon, diverse solutions should be sought, and the majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution.
So it seems that inherent in the act of beekeeping is a discovery first of the natural order by which bees regulate their own life-cycles, and from that should follow clues about how we might best integrate their life cycles with ours. For beekeeping, at its core, is an eco-systemic partnership. Whatever insights we might gain into our own social order by peeking inside of a beehive, should pale in comparison to the richer rewards to be gained by harmonizing our activities with the rest of the biosphere.