By Michael O’Malley
Last summer with global bee populations plummeting, scientists in the UK implored us to go out and buy our own hives to help restock the population.
Theories about why bees were suddenly dying out ranged from viruses to pesticides. One farmer apocalyptically likened bees to a canary down a mine, warning that the cause was chemicals being sprayed on farmland and that eventually it would have a similar effect on humans.
Slow chemical poisoning aside, no bees is bad news for humans, particularly for our farming industries that rely on them to pollinate crops and fruit trees.
So respect to bees. But what Michael O’Malley argues in his book The Wisdom of Bees is that we should also be looking at how bees organise their hives and not just their ability to make honey and keep the natural world procreating.
The book breaks down into 25 lessons to be learned from bee behaviour. These range from distributing authority to the virtues of keeping it simple and developing your team.
The basic formula is that O’Malley takes a business situation and then contrasts it with how bees adapt to the same problem.
On preparing for leadership changes he uses the example of the Bank of America. In September 2009 its chief executive Kenneth Lewis announced that he would leave that December.
The bank had no replacement for him at the time and it was perceived as a bad time to be without a leader in a recession. But with bees, the hive is constantly monitoring the queen for any drop in productivity.
As O’Malley points out, a colony headed by a strong queen produces more honey so the moment she starts to falter a replacement is brought in.
Another section waxes lyrical about the construction of the bee hive and the importance of creating an environment where people like to work.
All the lessons have a common sense approach and O’Malley connects bee behaviour to the work environment with wit and skill.
However, it quickly becomes clear that the life of a honey bee is hardly all sweetness and nectar, whether you’re a drone, a worker or even a queen. Death, purges from the hive, more death, a vicious and authoritarian regime, euthanasia and finally, even more death.
For example, in the section about basing personnel decisions on merit he describes how the hive shows little tolerance for the male drones once they cease to be useful. Those that successfully mate with the queen die anyway – those who fail to make the magic happen usually end up going back to the hive and spend the summer going for leisurely flights.
But once winter hits and with honey scarce those who do nothing to produce it suddenly become expendable. With the drones having no stingers, they are no match for the workers when the massacre of the drones begins.
Hardly the type of environment that many of us would want to work in.
Thankfully, O’Malley modifies and tones down the lessons, but taken to its logical conclusion you could use the behaviour of bees to justify all manner of authoritarian regimes.
No doubt a publisher somewhere is already preparing a book titled Bees Show Vicious Dictatorships are Just and Right.