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Be the Bee: Role and Responsibility in a Complex World

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When I started to research for my book The Simplicity Principle, I spent a lot of time at our cottage in the Brecon Beacons (in the middle of Wales), where honey bees would drink from honeysuckle and wild lavender right outsight my window.

I went into the local town, Hay-on-Wye, home to the biggest collection of second-hand bookstores in the world and the famous book festival visited several times by my great mentor–friend Maya Angelou, and I stumbled across a treasure-trove of old books about bees. I confess I was less interested in how bees make honey and so avoided books about how to become a beekeeper. Instead, I wanted to know how bees behave, how they actually live, what roles they play? I came across a real beauty of book, written in 1939 called 'The Mind of the Bees' and written by Julien Françon, about whom I can find nothing except this fine book. Here he is on what happens when bees go foraging:

As soon as the sun has topped the crest of the hill, if the weather be not threatening, for they fear cold and storm, they hurl themselves from the hive with attending flight which leads them towards the flowers, the purveyors of nectar and pollen which it is their mission to collect.[1]

Many of us recognize that feeling. Hurling ourselves from home or the office, launching into a mission either domestic or professional, almost on automatic pilot. Who we are in the world and what we do in it defines us. Bees, like us, have a fairly recognizable set of things they do on an hourly, daily, ongoing basis. Let me focus on just six of their core functions:

  1. They create and nurture life.
  2. They build and repair where they live and work.
  3. They collect goods with which to make and store products.
  4. They allow other living creatures to flourish (cross-pollination).
  5. They work incredibly hard and efficiently but they also rest and replenish.
  6. And finally, because they are a social species too, they communicate, albeit wordlessly.

Foraging, dancing and pollinating

Every bee, despite only having a finite set of functions and skills, is probably more individual than we think.

But for all of their individuality, bees, and the honey bees we are focusing on in Hexagon Action do have fixed roles. There is only one queen, tens of thousands of female worker bees, and smaller numbers of male drones. They all have specific tasks that only they do. The queen lays eggs, for instance, and the workers perform a variety of tasks from keeping brood cells warm in the hexagonal hives to going out to forage in the field and coming back in to do the waggle dance. Yes, the waggle dance is an important role for a bee to play. It is when it conveys all the information it has picked up in its antennae to the other bees to tell them how far the nearest store of pollen is and where exactly it is located.

When I coach people in career transition I often ask them to identify very specific roles they could play in their next phase of life. Often they look blank, or scared. I try and tell them that the structure of identifying what they can do is actually helpful. Sometimes looking at the bee is a good way to get them to focus and put their own skills into focus:

  1. Wagglers: The waggle is a very good skill to have. I think I have it in life (although ironically I am a terrible dancer). But if someone is a good communicator it could mean they have skills in anything from writing speeches to internal communications. Or it could mean they have good people skills overall. If you can be trusted and listened to, you can convey and store vital information which is valuable for all.

  2. Queen (or Leader): We think we know a lot about the queen bee, but interestingly the cultural association with that term is negative: To be a ‘queen bee’ is to be aloof, grand, not with the gang, and yet to have power. Translate this into leadership: are you the kind of leader who connects with your team? Inspiring loyalty if you lead is not easy to achieve and comes because you are regarded with respect and because you are seen to be essential to the survival of the group.

  3. Foragers: These bees go out and search for the honey; they remind me of people in sales and development or recruitment, who must to go out and find out things and find out people. Are you a forager or do others need to play that role in your life? This is an especially valuable question to ask if you are a freelance person, or developing a portfolio career. Many of the people I coach and teach are being forced by working practices to become foragers – and they don’t feel at all comfortable doing it. People learn, like bees, to forage.

  4. Pollinators: Bees create most of our feed through pollinating millions of flowers and crops. Without them, humans would struggle to survive. In human terms, those who can cross-pollinate ideas, be flexible, partake in what is called in-network theory ‘boundary spanning’ are all highly valuable members of society. They don’t consume so much as spread, collect, and mix it up.

  5. Worker bees: The main worker is the essential driver of delivery. The worker bees create the honeycomb from wax that they produce from their bodies. They gather all of the nectar used to make honey. There is absolutely nothing wrong with just being able to work hard. To do what is asked of you without complaint. In fact, this is often overlooked. But the worker bee is literally the centre of production. Which means, yes, the hive of productivity. If you can be clear how you contribute, what your role is in the creation of the product of whatever organization you belong to, that is value. Pure and simple.

  6. Housekeeper: Bees are especially good at housekeeping, which is one reason why they are so productive: nothing is wasted, much is recycled. Workers care for the eggs and the larvae, raise the young bees, clean the nest, get rid of dead bees and other debris, defend the nest, and feed the queen. Your role could quite literally be to be in charge of the house – that’s what a ‘chief of staff’ does, which is a grand way of saying: supervise.

There is obviously a huge difference between us humans and our tiny, stripy, honey-loving fellow social creatures. I would not want you to take ‘be the bee, honey’ too literally. But the way they organize themselves in different roles, and their social essence means that if we want to really apply The Simplicity Principle, and learn to keep it simple and learn from nature, then they are the living species we can look to and learn from.

[1] J Francon (1947)The Mind of the Bees, Methuen & Co Ltd, London