A bee's entire life's work is 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. I thought about this today as I was introducing a group of children from the Oseola McCarthy Youth Development Center to the bees. We peered into the bees' lively worlds and took turns enjoying fresh honey right out of the cells. In short order, we must have sampled the life's work of a small army of the intrepid and indefatigable insects without giving it a second thought.
The math behind a beehive can be mind-boggling. A queen can lay around 1500 eggs/day during the busy season, and a single hive can top 50,000 bees. Of course, these are not always the same bees, since about 500 a day die due to natural attrition. That means that a single queen produces over 10,000 new bees every week just to maintain that population. By the time the summer nectar flow is over, a strong, mature hive in south Mississippi can produce well over 100 lbs. of surplus honey. Realize, too, that to produce a single pound of honey, bees need to visit 2,000,000 flowers and fly over 50,000 miles. That's the equivalent of flying twice around the earth...for one pound of honey. And they do this over 100 times. And each individual worker bee's life contribution is 1/12 of a teaspoon. In case you are keeping score at home, there are A LOT of twelfth-teaspoons in 100 lbs.
Everything that goes on in a hive is designed to benefit the superorganism. That is, all the individual bees have to work as a single unit for the colony to survive. They have to suppress their personal ambitions in favor of a greater good. No bee, no matter how heroic, can produce enough honey to single-handedly sustain a hive. Her life's work, to us, is seemingly insignificant—that lone drip of honey left unattended at the bottom of the plate when we've finished our morning biscuit. But without that small drip—and the small drips of every other worker bee in the colony—sustained life would be impossible.
Bees emerge from their cells ready to work. They go through a series of jobs in their short lives, both inside and outside the hives. What they achieve is nothing short of miraculous. For their tireless toil, they receive no participation trophies, no employee-of-the-month awards, no accolades, acknowledgments, or acclaim. What's even more shocking? They don't need them. They don't have time for the superficialities that seem to drive the human world—where an altruistic call for a greater good invites eye rolls and accusations of naïveté. Why wouldn't we want to receive a raise for our hard work? (Think of all the cool stuff we could buy!) Why wouldn't we want our fifteen minutes of fame? Why wouldn't we want everyone to take a split second out of his or her day to acknowledge our pictures, pontifications, or prizes? After all, proud individuality is the heart and soul of a culture that seems to be losing its heart and soul.
Honey bees probably don't spend much time thinking about their place in the larger cosmos. They are busy making a modest contribution that will ensure the survival of future generations of brothers and sisters they will never even meet. When they are gone, other bees will replace them. They will not be immortalized in statues. No movies will be made about their brave deeds. Heck, they don't even have names. And their worlds are better for it. Not just better, but possible.
On the human side of the fence is a world where a roomful of Mighty Individuals can't agree that the sun rises in the east, where there is no such thing as bad publicity, and where one celebrates his or her 1/12 teaspoon of achievement as if it is somehow more valuable than the 100 lbs. of sustaining energy made possible when everyone works together for that naive greater good.
Bee populations may be in decline, but I dare say that they have some things figured out. We might do well to pay attention.