As some of you know, I am a beekeeper – I have two hives in my garden in central London. I started keeping them for environmental reasons (bee numbers have been in serious decline and over 70% of the world’s crops rely on bees for pollination). It is true that London honey is exceptionally delicious (due to the wealth of flora in the frequently irrigated gardens, tree-lined streets and parks), but the best benefit I have gained is a deepening in my own understanding of my environment and life at work. What I did not appreciate, until I had been an apiarist for a while, was quite how much being an urban beekeeper would teach me about life, leadership, good management and focused effort.
Bees have symbolized society and order for centuries – the ancient Egyptians represented the kingdom of Lower Egypt with a bee (the land was prosperous and industrious around the Nile delta) and they believed that the first bees grew from the tears of the sun god Ra when they landed on the desert sand. Napoleon I used bees as a motif to symbolize his imperial authority and covered everything, from his carpets to coronation robes, with them. The Victorians used to use bees as an ideal example of perfect social order – there is a wonderful cartoon by Cruikshank that depicts this with Victoria at the apex of the hive - each individual knowing its role and place within society and doing the best it could for the benefit of all (this certainly applies to the worker bees but is questionable in relation to the idle males, the drones, although perhaps at a time when the aristocracy were are their peak and there were sons waiting for their inheritance (a bit like Prince Charles now) the analogy seemed apt).
I have gained a deeper understanding of my own environment from observing my bees, my learnings and observations include:
The importance of adopting the right strategic approach through consensual leadership – When some of the hive swarms they will not immediately establish themselves in the first location that they find. Scouts are sent to determine potential new sites. Assessors then inspect and rate the proposed locations, until a consensus is reached as to the right place to be. Once decided, the whole colony works together to establish themselves successfully. Similarly, near the end of the summer, when there is little likelihood of the hive needing a new queen, it is common for the workers to expel the drones, as they are no longer required to fertilise a queen and are simply an unproductive drain on precious resources. Bees analyse and respond to the world in which they operate and they do what they must to ensure an optimum existence.
Growth being good at the correct time – bee numbers increase if there is a healthy active queen – much the same way as business’ grow if they have a healthy realistic strategy that all the workers understand and support and that can be trusted/ relied upon to produce results. Hive numbers also increase when there is a surplus of raw materials in the world around them that they can turn into desirable produce. Bees are swift to seize the opportunity to take advantage of circumstances.
Turnover is a fact of life – departures will result either because the bees swarm and a portion of the hive leave to create a new existence elsewhere; or when there are required reductions in bee numbers (these occur in late summer onwards, when bee numbers decline so that there is a suitable nucleus of bees to carry the colony through the winter, but not so many that the stores won’t support them); or bee numbers will reduce due to external factors; bees are susceptible to disease and attack – every year there seem to be new parasites or diseases that can decimate a hive – it is important to be vigilant and spot early on any signs of abnormality (the building of queen cells predicts a swarming event, varroa mites indicate potential health problems). Businesses can also suffer from not adapting to change or reading the signs, understanding what’s going on and taking appropriate action.
The value of forward planning – in the Spring, when it is warmer and there are some flowers in bloom, the queen will be encouraged to lay to create the number of bees necessary to support the hive over the summer and autumn (The queen is encouraged to lay and is even instructed as to what sex of egg to deposit within a cell by the shape of the receptacle that has been created by the workers); similarly later in the year, when temperatures drop and the days shorten, the colony numbers will reduce to ensure a good chance of survival over the Winter months.
The need to be flexible – in the event that the queen dies or disappears, the workers, provided that they have a suitable egg, will create a new queen for the hive out of what would otherwise have been a normal worker.
Internal politics is usually driven by the surrounding environment and the impact of supply and demand – bees are very aware of the conditions within the hive – if things are good and there is plenty of opportunity for two colonies to survive the population will create a new queen and swarm. If the market conditions are right MBO’s and similar corporate finance activities are likely to occur within a business. When the queen bee is old or ill and hence not laying well, it is not uncommon for the hive to make a new queen to ensure its ongoing strength and survival – this will result in the death of the former queen.
The importance of focused Personal Development - from the moment they hatch, bees go through an orderly progression of development. When juvenile they saty in the hive and learn to clean cells and undertake operational roles, later, when stronger and more mature they become foragers but even then they have specific roles - some gatehr nectar or pollen, others fetch water to cool teh hive or dilute stores. Roles are clearly defined, guidance is provided by peers and each bee knows what it should be doing - not a bad template for business.
The need to know your role and to value the contribution of those around you – the Queen has a role, rather than a position of power. The whole hive is influenced by and supports her, but only for such time as she is fulfilling a valuable purpose (laying eggs). Similarly, the drones are produced as a requirement for a healthy, fertile queen, once there is no longer a need to make a new queen the drones are expelled from the hive. Individuality is accepted but only if the function benefits the whole community.
The value of communication – most people have heard of the Waggle Dance – the way in which bees inform other hive members of the location of good nectar and stores. This is only one of many ways in which bees communicate – the queen exudes pheromones which are passed from bee to bee and bind the members of the hive together with a shared sense of identity (a bit like having a brand identity) and bees communicate possible new sites to the rest of the colony for them to decide on the best location after they have swarmed.
I could provide numerous other analogies, but I am sure you get the message. There is so much that we can all learn from the things around us and I have learned from my bees – as my youngest son says, it makes sound Buzzness!