The Wisdom of Bees, By Sarah Ahrens, DRE

The theme of this year’s Liberal Religious Educator’s Conference was “Theologies of Suffering and Wholeness: Companions in Liberation.” The pivotal message that I received from these workshops was simply this–we cannot grow into our best selves as individuals or as a collective denomination unless we work together in collaboration. The 6th Principle goal of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all requires a level of teamwork that demands prioritizing the ‘we’ over the ‘me.’ Achieving this kind of cooperation is messy, sticky, and sometimes painful work. We all come from different backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, and positions of privilege and power. These differences mean that there will be challenges, mistakes, and indeed suffering along the way. The path to wholeness, the path to liberation, the path to justice for all must be walked together if we have any hope of succeeding. 

The key metaphor used throughout the conference was one of “Honey for the Soul.” The highly organized, collective work of bees yields many gifts. Honey used as nourishment, as an offering, as ritual.  Honey is used for healing and preserving (our December theme). Of course, in all that effort to generate the honey, the bees are busy pollinating and ensuring that there is sustenance for others in the process. It all comes full circle. 

So what wisdom can we glean from the hive mind? How can that inform the way we are together in beloved community?

Each Bee Matters–When a worker bee stings in a protective measure, she dies. With so many bees in the hive, one loss seems somewhat insignificant. But each bee has its role to play and is integral to the collective. Because the bees have an instinctive drive to work as a collective, the decision-making process is a democratic system in which each vote counts. 

Small Steps Add Big Value–Honeybees responsible for pollinating crops are worth billions of dollars. The value of the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts, but yet it is never one bee that is able to build all the cells for a honeycomb. The queen, the drone, the worker, the forager, the cleaner, the undertaker, the nurse, the builder, the guard are all integral to the success of the entire hive. No single bee can survive on its own. There is a division of labor, and every member must carry out its role and cooperate with others for both its own survival and that of the entire hive. 

Success in Succession–Honey bees don’t live very long, but during their lifetime they cycle through 15 or 20 tasks necessary for the hive’s functioning. Work-flow and succession-planning are optimized so that there is never a dearth of support. Every bee has a successor in waiting to ensure that the entirety of the hive functions seamlessly through any transitions or losses. 

Collaboration Culture–The productive beehive is dominated by a female culture which is rooted in collaboration versus competition. Everything accomplished is with the collective in mind, and the female worker bee will sacrifice itself by stinging a predator to protect the colony. The ‘we’ is always more important to a bee than the ‘me.’

Waggle at Work–Bees communicate through a dance known as a waggle. This form of interaction indicates to the rest of the group where essential resources lie and what is happening at large. It is through this mode that bees make cooperative decisions about what is best for the hive as a whole. Nothing is decided by just one bee, even the queen!

Pollinate Profusely–Honeybees are always serving the community while engaged in their own work for the colony. As they gather nectar from countless flowers and plants, they are spreading valuable pollen vital to the preservation of other forms of life. They have an innate understanding and support of the interdependent web of life. Their own success depends on ensuring the success of others outside their hive community. 

We have much to learn from the lowly bee. Fulfilling our mission of “nurturing spiritual journeys and expanding social justice” requires teamwork not only within the confines of our own walls, but also with the community at large. It necessitates shifting our focus from the ‘ME’ to the ‘WE,’ examining not only what the congregation can do for us as individuals, but also how the congregation can serve our society at large. It compels us to employ the democratic process of our 5th Principle, ensuring each voice has a vote. It obliges each of us to find a need in the fellowship and rise to meet it, to determine what our personal gifts are and offer to share them. We can grow and thrive together in a way we could never do alone. That is the way to creating the beloved community which embodies our mission, vision and UU Principles. That is the way of the bee.