All Credit to the Bees


I’m having the most marvelous couple of months at work, with a remarkable diversity of pursuits that, at first blush, seem disconnected. What, for example, do naturopaths, territorial legislatures, a polytechnic college, a human rights caucus, agricultural land use planners and writing festivals have in common?

If you’re a regular, you can see the answer coming: bees. Admittedly I do occupy a senior position at my university’s Centre for Dialogue that allows me considerable latitude in my research, teaching and community engagement activities. But still, it’s bees that have guided me into the diverse portfolios I’ve taken on.

Take the naturopaths, for instance. I was approached by a clinic that was interested in increasing collaboration in their business decisions and professional development, as well as in how their doctors cooperate in patient care.

They turned to me to facilitate a workshop on collaboration after hearing me talk on the radio about how honeybees work together, putting the needs of the colony above those of individuals. And indeed, that was the outcome of our meeting; the group devised strategies by which their solitary endeavours could become communal, which is the essence of collaboration.

I wrote in an earlier blog post about facilitating a priority planning exercise for the 19 newly elected members of the Northwest Territories legislature. The NWT has an unusual form of government, consensus-based rather than the argumentative party politics more common in democracies. There was an excellent fit between how I understood consensus from studying honeybee colonies, and the legislators understood consensus as a decision-making tool.

For example, scout workers in a honeybee swarm searching for a new nest return from scouting and perform dances that contain information about the distance, direction and most importantly quality of a potential nesting cavity. At first there are dances to many sites, but eventually the workers concentrate on one and the swarm lifts off and flies together to the new nest.

David Bohm, one of human dialogue’s historical giants, wrote about how a tribe of native Americans reaches decisions, and his narrative perfectly summarizes how the NWT Territorial Assembly works by consensus, and honeybees as well: “They just talked and talked and talked. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other.”

Another bee-related invitation came from Humber College in Toronto, due to an important innovation in their classrooms, HIVES, which stands for Humber Interactive Spaces. HIVES are 19 classrooms designed to function as collaborative learning spaces, where students can learn from and with each other, as well as from the professor. Six to eight students sit in pods at tables with computer and internet access, and use inquiry based curriculum to learn together, guided by their group’s interactions as much or more than by the professor.

HIVES were inspired by honeycomb, which is among nature’s most collaborative enterprises, constructed by thousands of bees that each secrete simple flakes of wax and together form them into a highly complicated and robust structure. It is the venue upon which bees exchange information, communicating their experiences inside and outside the hive, creating awareness of their own community and the external environment. Honeycomb embodies the ideas of collaboration, experience and learning that characterize the HIVES classrooms.

Just yesterday I gave a talk and facilitated a session for a caucus of nurses invested in furthering human rights and equity within their profession and externally. The focus was on how to have difficult conversations. I was able to draw upon honeybee communication to provide ideas for the group to ponder.

If there is a single element that stands out to explain why honeybees work together so well, it’s their intense communication with each other. Honeybees excel at exchanging information with and maintaining a continual awareness of the hive mates around them.

Bees listen to each other, deeply, all channels on, using every mode of communicating we know of and probably some we’re not yet aware of. Vision, odor, taste, hearing, touch, vibration, magnetism, electric fields – the input is constant and the interactions intense. And that same depth of communication is a powerful tool to overcome human rights abuses and establish a more equitable society.

Next week I’m on way to Toronto for a dinner meeting with ALUS, the Agricultural Land Use Society. ALUS is a farmer delivered program that gives Canadians the opportunity to play an active role in building a healthier environment by providing support to farmers and ranchers to enhance and maintain ecosystem services.

Bees, both honey and wild, drew me into agriculture, as managed and wild bees can’t be studied without understanding how deeply they depend on healthy agroecosystems. The decline of honeybees and wild bees has been major news for the last ten years or so, and I share the public’s concern for the future of our pollinating global co-inhabitants. As a result, I’ve become increasingly proactive in speaking out in favor of reduced pesticide use, diversified habitats and more sustainable farming as important strategies to preserve pollinators.

The last set of invitations have come through writing, especially my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.” I’ve given 30 or 40 readings over the last year since the book came out, and will be heading to the Winnipeg Writers Festival next week for their annual gala celebrating the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Writing about bees has been among my greatest personal delights, and the chance to read for a public audience is still a thrill. Invisible to my audience, but visceral to me, is that I’m sharing the podium with the bees.

I rarely spend time in apiaries any more, but the bees are with me no matter what activity has come my way, infused by whatever wisdom the hive has imparted during my 40 years of bee time.


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