What is The Bee? Notice I use a capital letter. I am not asking the question what is a bee, but what is The Bee. What is the organism that beekeepers interact with? Many see the answer as simple: bees are social insects that live together in colonies. Each colony has one queen, several hundred drones and many thousands of workers. The bees live on comb, that they make for themselves, and which they use to raise young and store food.
This ‘box full of insects’ approach starts from the bottom and aggregates the pieces. What you end up with is a collection of many parts. Conventional beekeeping goes further: it treats these parts as interchangeable, brood from one bee nest can be transferred to another. The same goes for the bees.
What happens if we step back a little from the parts and look at the whole? Start with a swarm, as this is the beginning of life for The Bee. No-one who has seen a swarm issuing from a hive, swirling in the air and then collecting on a branch can fail to be impressed. Even more so when that swarm either by its own actions or through the actions of the beekeeper moves into a new hive. If hived by a beekeeper through being ‘run in’, that is being tipped onto a board sloping up to the hive entrance, the bees quite literally flow up hill and into the hive. One gets the overwhelming impression not of ‘many parts’ but of a coherent flowing whole.
The swarm then starts to build comb with beeswax that is exuded from its own body. The comb becomes the place where young bees are reared, at close to mammalian body temperature. The young are fed and eventually become adult bees. But this is not reproduction – that happened with the swarm. This is growth: each bee represents The Bee growing larger. The comb is the skeleton of The Bee and the bees are rather like cells in its body. It just so happens that those cells are mobile – like blood cells only less confined.
The Bee body grows to fill the cavity available, and fits it rather like a hermit crab fits its adopted shell. Left unrestricted, the comb forms a series of catenary curves, hanging from the top of the chosen cavity. Bees fly off in all directions to collect nectar, pollen, water and propolis and bring these vital substances back to the nest. The individual bees are guided in their journeys by complex interactions in the nest, both with each other and with and through the comb. These interactions determine precisely what each individual bee does both within the nest and and outside of it. The so called waggle dance is only one of many such interactions. The bees we see are not acting independently but as integral parts of the whole. No bee, not even the queen, ever acts independently. All actions are determined by, and coordinated with, the needs of the whole. It is the whole that forms the functioning unit, the organism. That whole includes everything within the nest, all the bees and all the comb.
As beekeepers, rather than seeing an aggregation of separate pieces, we should look to the whole when considering what creature it is that we have in our care. After all, we do not care for our dogs or cats, one limb at a time, swapping bits between them at our own convenience. Perhaps we should pause before doing so with our bees. There is a German word that is sometimes used to describe the whole organism that is The Bee, it is Bien.
Gareth, West Oxfordshire, 2012