If Honey Bees Could Speak, Would We Listen? (Part III)

By Jessie Ayani

In this article we will take a closer look within the hive. Starting in the brood chamber, we will follow the development of the queen, worker and drone. Then we will look at their assumption of duties in the hive and the great weaving of community that provides us with a model of democracy yet to be reached by human civilization. The bees inspire us to selfless service, revered by Rudolf Steiner as the highest spiritual attainment of the soul.


This journey will also take us into our own homes and into our communities exploring our similarities and differences to the bees. They have so much to teach us that some beekeepers advise those who have got the basics of beekeeping down to go on to become bee watchers. This is where the real wonder of beekeeping unfolds.


The Natural Life of Bees

Most beekeepers choose to keep bees in conventional beehives, call the Langstroth hives after the man who invented this hive, with moveable frames, in the late 1800’s. They are the easiest hives to handle, being compact, stackable and coming in a lightweight version. These are the stacked boxes, usually painted white or pastel yellow or blue, seen dotting the countryside. They are also the least natural because the bees are restricted to a small rectangular frame guided by starter comb. Bees, naturally, prefer a hollow tree where they build comb in beautiful, wavy, heart-shaped segments that will nearly fill the space the tree provides. They prefer to build them quite long and they begin the comb building on solid parts of the tree’s interior. Feral bees live in this way.


We have some options when providing space for them that can be more natural. You can find plans on the internet to build your own beehive as either a top bar hive (TBH) or a Warré hive, which is a vertical top bar hive (vTBH). The woodworking is not difficult for those who have the tools to work with wood. These hives have top bars only (no frames) suspended over an empty space in which the bees can freely build their natural comb from the top bar. A bead of wax run along the center of the bar is all the encouragement the bees need to begin building comb.


TBHs are a little deeper than the Langstroth frames and make for happier bees but a little more work for the beekeeper who may need to remove wax built on the sides of the hive to release a bar with comb. For the commercial honey producer they are out of the question. Why? The comb must be crushed to harvest the honey instead of spun in a centrifugal frame holder. It is messy to be sure, but crushed comb releases a good many nutrients into the honey missed in conventionally spun honey – especially honey that has been heated (is not raw). One really nice feature of TBH, for the love of children, as well as for the beekeeper’s need to know what is happening in the colony without invasive inspections, is that these hives can be built with viewing windows.


Whichever hive a beekeeper chooses, one will characteristically find the brood chamber in the center frames or bars. This placement is for protection, warmth (a constant 35˚C), and convenience to food stores on either side of the brood. If you were to examine the frame with the brood chamber during high foraging time (spring and summer), you would find a center space with darker comb where the queen is laying eggs continually. These eggs are laid into a nourishing gel where they hatch in just three days. A larva emerges and lays flat on the floor of the cell where it is fed up to a thousand times a day by nurse bees. It floats in royal jelly for three days at which time the diet changes to worker jelly. The brood is surrounded by a band of cells containing pollen, the protein component of a bee’s diet, and above the band of pollen are the honey stores for the brood.


You would notice that around the periphery the comb cells are quite a bit larger than average. These are the cells in which drone eggs are laid, while the worker brood is in the center and any queen cells would be hanging off the bottom of the natural comb, like sacks. After eggs hatch (3 days), each type of bee matures on a different time-line of metamorphosis. The larvae will shed their skin and produce a larger one five times in the larva stage. Then when ready to pupate they stand upright (future head to the door) and spin their cocoon. The nurse bees seal the cell with propolis and beeswax and the final stages of development ensue. The brood chamber is the nucleus of the hive, where tremendous activity occurs before and during the foraging season as thousands of new bees emerge every day.


A new queen emerges after 16 days. She has a half-day shorter larva stage than a worker and just 7 ½ days of pupation, yet is the largest of all the bees – a real testimonial to a diet of royal jelly. The worker emerges in 21 days and the drones in 24 days. Steiner asks us to note that the sun rotates on its axis every 21 days. The queen does not complete this cycle and thus remains a fertile female child of the sun. The workers complete one full turn of the sun, taking in all aspects of its rotation and emerge as mature sun animals with a moment’s influence of the earth. Thus they are infertile workers prepared to take on all the different tasks a worker performs. The drones emerge in 24 days, having completed the sun rotation followed by a complete immersion in earth energy, thus they are fertile earth animals. Bees are cosmic beings in every sense of the word bringing sun and earth together in the hive along with a major influence of Venus.


The queen’s job is clear – duty in the extreme. She is meant to lay eggs, sometimes thousands in a day. Most of her eggs will have been fertilized on her nuptial flight(s) and these will produce worker bees. They are cosmically tied to her through their sun lineage. She also has unfertilized eggs. These she lays in the larger cells to become drones. In the lower animals, this is known as parthenogenesis. Fed and groomed by a court of workers, the queen can live up to 5 years though her productivity naturally declines. She will be replaced through supercedure wherein the worker bees take newly laid female eggs and create 5 or more queen cells by feeding them exclusively royal jelly. They extend these cells into elongated sacs to hold quite large bees – the queens. The first queen to emerge will usually destroy the other emerging queens (or fight to the death, winner takes all) whilst the old queen will either leave the hive to die or will be kindly taken care of until she is ready to die. You will remember that in commercial beekeeping the queens are often replaced monthly in season, eliminating an important stabilizing factor in the colony. What ensues is adaptation under stress.


The drones emerge after 24 days, bigger and, no doubt, hungrier than the workers. They are taken care of by nurse bees and later by house bees that tolerate their dependency because they are needed to fertilize new queens, domestic and feral, emerging for kilometers around. Drones are vital for the continuation of their species through the strength and diversity of the gene pool, which safeguards evolution and allows adaptation. Like worker bees, they live around 6 weeks and are eliminated altogether in autumn to conserve food stores over the winter. When spring is imminent, worker bees will prepare larger cells and the queen will once again lay drone eggs looking ahead to the fertilization of new queens.


The female worker bees finish their development at 21 days and emerge to begin their life of service. Their first task is to clean out the cell they were born in to make it ready for another egg. They might depend on nurse bees for food initially but are quickly introduced to the honey and pollen stores to feed themselves. Their first real job is that of the nurse bee, which could lead to being part of the queen’s court of groomers and feeders. After roughly 2 weeks, they move on to housekeeping duties, which could be taking in nectar and pollen from foragers, often stashing it in nearby cells when high foraging demands it, then moving it into the honey stores where it is concentrated into honey through the beating of their wings. They might also work in temperature control where beating wings are cooling or heating the brood chamber to the constant 35˚C.


They will also take a turn secreting wax and building or repairing comb for brood and food stores. Some house bees become guards at the hive doors, removing robber bees or lost bees from neighboring hives, invasive insects, ants, and, yes, people. I have seen them wrestling with an invader, often falling off the hive bench into the grass to finish them off. Finally, the workers become foragers, beginning with flight training, learning to interpret the waggle dance that indicates where the nectar flow is in relation to the sun, and how to use the comb as a means to transmit vibratory information through the colony. Finally they are tirelessly on mission to forage nectar, pollen, and propolis to keep the colony in robust good health. Like the drones they live around 6 weeks, often dying in mid-flight, unable to make it home with that last heavy load.


Selfless Service to the “Bien”

How can we understand the nature of the “bien”? It is a self-sufficient community of bees working in an elevated state of harmony. To quote Rudolf Steiner from the Bees lecture series, “That which we experience within ourselves only at a time when our hearts develop love is actually the very same thing that is present as a substance in the entire beehive. The whole beehive is permeated with life based on love.” The basis for this love is selfless service to the “bien”, to the greater whole.


Taking a look at our family of bees from this perspective we can see that each member, queen, worker and drone, has sacrificed in their own way to preserve the “bien”. The “bien” is greater than the individual bee. The “bien” is their source of cosmic nourishment and a metaphorical ego in which their purpose and place are expressed. It is little wonder then that the bees are the highest of the animals spiritually though they are, as individuals, merely insects, generally not held in high regard.


The queen has given herself to a life of laying eggs. Her task is absolutely essential to the survival of the “bien” and she does this not yearning to fly out and see the world on her own. She has given her very survival over to her children who groom and feed her. She has no time or capacity to take care of herself, yet she is in contact with every member of the “bien” through her organizing pheromones, which determine the personality of the “bien” and its survival. For example, she will signal the need to swarm when she feels honey-bound and the workers will begin to make drones cells for her infertile eggs. Drones emerge 24 days after she lays their eggs, and reach maturity at 36 days. On that 24th day the workers begin making queen cells and the queen lays fertile eggs within in them on the 28th day. Then between the 36th and 40th day, she signals the swarm and they are off, leaving behind a brood chamber teaming with the potential of new life, as well as a group of nurse bees ready to rear the new queen. They take only 3 days of honey stores with them. On the 44th day a new queen emerges to lead the abandoned and somewhat confused colony forward.


In swarming, these bees have allowed a new queen to come forth with new genetic material to take the evolution of their species forward. They have emptied the hive by half at the beginning of good forage, the time of lowest risk for the remaining colony, and in doing so have strengthened the immunity of both colonies by splitting the density of any pathogens present in the colony and the hive. They have done this at enormous risk to their own survival, needing to find a new home and start building comb and foraging before their 3-day supply of food runs out. Bad weather and lack of forage can cause catastrophic losses to the swarm.


The female worker bees, making up 80% or more of the colony in forage time and 100% with queen during winter months, have sacrificed their sexuality to perform the tasks that hold the “bien” in form. From cleaning their own cell after they emerge from pupation to dying in flight bringing food home to the hive 6 weeks later. Theirs is a life of selfless service. Steiner felt that their infertility, their renunciation of personal love, creates the love within the “bien”. All natural beekeepers are aware of this exceptional feeling around happy bees. It is uplifting, good therapy, to work with them or just to sit near the hive.


If the queen were to begin failing or die, the workers would know to begin feeding royal jelly to her last eggs and expanding those cells into queen cells for supersedure. This demonstrates the sun connection between workers and queen in action. And, as most of us already know, a foraging bee or guard bee will sting to defend themselves or the “bien” (really all the same to them), and in doing so will sacrifice their life. It should be noted that they do not need to sacrifice life to sting other insects whilst keeping the hive tidy and safe, as the stinger is retrieved.


Then there are the fertile male drones, bound to the earth element, and on hand to chase any queen on her nuptial flight. Neighborhood drones hang together high up in open spaces during the swarm season awaiting virgin queens. If they are strong enough to catch and inseminate a virgin queen they leave behind a good bit of their innards as they die, falling to the earth they were born into, in sacrificial death. Any drones remaining at the end of foraging season when the queen has quit laying drone eggs to concentrate on bringing forth a core of workers for the winter, will be culled from the “bien” by the worker bees before their 6-week life is over. They make this sacrifice to conserve food stores through the winter for the queen and workers who are keeping her warm and vital. Drones will not appear again until swarming season as described above.


The bees live without personal gain or investment in life beyond the continuation of the “bien”. Like all animals, death is an easy transition for the bees but it is significant that the bees leave behind the “bien” an ongoing community of love. Is that the key to ascension, some might ask? What might we learn from this unique gift of the bees? What wisdom exists within the “bien” for us as parents?


Fostering the Human “Bien”

In America, the ongoing economic downturn has forced us to rethink and re-imagine community. We found, for the most part, that we were stranded in neighborhoods where no one communicated, due to plentiful distractions, consumerism/big box store mentality and an atmosphere of fear cultivated by media, government, religion and the “culture” itself. This extended recession has found many of us breaking free of those restrictions to rebuild communities in many different ways. We want Main Street instead of Wall Street, local food, fewer, better-made necessities, and meaningful relationships with our community members.  My community is a transition town with action groups the have spawned major resources of change, like our Local Grub Club where members can buy local produce from farmers and backyard gardeners they know. I can sell my excess veggies for grub bucks money that I can then use to buy food I haven’t grown in my garden. It is a form of trading and I am doing it with neighbors too – veggies for eggs.


In addition to that model we have community gardens where members split the harvest between themselves, the food banks, soup kitchen, “Meals on Wheels” for housebound elders and some selling at the Farmer’s Market to pay for the next year’s garden. We depend on irrigation in California and setting that up is an example of an expense they will face as they expand. The group size better than doubles every year and vacant land is offered accordingly. We also have a trader’s co-op where everyone with something to trade shows up at a donated space and barters for things they need.


One new/old model that a group of us are working with is the gift community. We all struggled through the task of making a list of our gifts to go with another list, that of our needs. The first took some time but the latter was a problem for very few of us. We emailed these to everyone in the group and had a circle to discuss it. I found myself negotiating bodywork for gardening, a borrowed truck for pickling dill, and tree cutting for firewood. Everyone wins and we learn to value what we have equally. A doctor’s time is no more valuable than child-care in this system.


For example, in two bigger towns, Portland, Maine and Santa Fe, New Mexico, they have set this sort of system up for a greater community with new members signing up all the time. Usually called Hour Shares, it uses a computer data base where people can bank hours helping someone else and cash in on them through a whole directory of those owing hours – an hour for an hour – not based on who you are, but on what people need and have to offer. It is a good gift community model, and it works. Still other communities have their own currency, outside the federal system, to use for local purchase or cash in for US dollars at participating banks and credit unions.

All of these examples flirt with the possibilities of a human “bien”, close community that is responsive, unified and willing to sacrifice to help others. It takes me back to the neighborhood I grew up in where a neighbor was happy to fix your plumbing and wait until summer for his cherry pie, and where childcare wasn’t an issue as we kids traveled as a happy mob from house to house, yard to yard – always warmly welcomed. These models pluck us out of the trap of consumerism that has cleverly captured the culture. What is more, they provide a very different environment for children growing up in a giving, “We”, community instead of a taking, “Me”, community. There is little self-absorption, no feelings or beliefs of entitlement, and plenty of friends and play. Within a giving community, a child is supported not only with good food, play and lasting friendships. Each child learns to feel the difference between giving and taking, a gift that will stay with them all of their life and help them to form community around themselves wherever they are on this planet. Oh, and they probably won’t have to struggle to list their gifts.


In looking closely at the community of the “bien” in the hive (the spirit/substance within the hive, which is love), I see that we can create that for our own communities. I can report that just the local food idea has grown from a few people to 45 last year to well over 300 this year and counting. We all want it and it has created a substance, a kind of baby “bien” amongst us. Every person I have talked to about it has become a member and as we grow we can resource more and more that our amazing locals (“We”) have to offer.  How exciting to imagine new ways of expanding and enriching the Freshwater Creek community, which is already flourishing in so many ways.


And what if we let the status quo reign? Consumerism, social and economic inequity, political charades, isolationism and entitlement are not sustainable. Sooner or later, what we know as the “culture” will collapse. Those of us reaching out to form lasting, supportive and sustainable community will feel little affect of that collapse at the local level. Perhaps our children or grandchildren will read about it one day as young adults reviewing recent history and marvel at the wisdom of their parents who chose to create resilient systems within their communities rather than collapse.


We can see the loss of the “bien” with the vanishing honeybees. Colony Collapse Disorder (previously articles) is a phenomenon with a constellation of invasive triggers, all originating from our “culture”. It would be blatantly ignorant to ignore the message the honeybees are sending us. It strengthens us to restore conditions that will help them survive and bring the light of their “bien” back into our lives but without the concomitant restructuring of our communities, we miss the point. The point is: human evolution depends on us creating our own “bien”, the human equivalent of the bee’s selfless service to community that engenders the substance of love.