Sunday, 16 June 2019

A bit more than just the birds and the bees

Life has had a bit of a buzz to it over the past week. I went to the CIPD’s inaugural Festival of Work and had a wonderful time connecting with friends and contacts, putting faces to names and learning about new products and services. I particularly enjoyed hearing Garry Kasparov's thoughts on technology (below shows him speaking beside a picture of his beating  a number of computers simultaneously in 1985 - he famously lost to Deep Blue in 1997 - a moment he now sees as a triumph for humans, rather than his personal loss. He is confident that we have a great future ahead of us thanks to AI and technology.)

I also had the good fortune to attend a splendid garden party at Marlborough House (great fun, despite the rain). We were raising money for Bees For Development - a charity that helps disadvantaged people, living in some of the world’s poorest regions, to lift themselves out of extreme poverty through becoming beekeepers.  There was a fascinating display of traditional hives, these ones are from Africa: a bamboo hive from Uganda and a split cane one from Ethiopia - these would usually be plastered on the outside with a mixture of soil and cow dung and given a grass roof to protect from the rain). 

We were joined by some true Queen Bees of UK society, including Martha Kearney (a patron of the charity), Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall 

and Mary Berry (who was sporting a wonderful jacket covered in embroidered bees). 

Bees have been quite a focus for me.

Last weekend I gave a tour of my beehive to some neighbours, a delightful couple with their equally delightful teenage sons – they had won the viewing as a prize in a local charity auction. The bees behaved beautifully (and they have made some amazing wax constructions inside the hive where there was a gap in the brood box, which made the inspection even more interesting for my guests). 

I enjoyed explaining some of the weird facts about bees – did you know that:
  • the queen can select what sex egg she lays, but that her choice is based on the shape of the cell that the workers bees have made for her;
  • pollen is multi-coloured and so is honey (it all depends on the plant from which it originates);
  • a worker bee will usually live for up to 6 weeks but a queen can live for up to 5 years (it is believed that a bee lives for circa 500 miles of flight – an over-wintering bee, which flies less, can live for a number of months);
  • humans have been using bee products (wax and honey) for over 9,000 years;
  • honey is almost the only food that doesn’t go off and remains in an edible state (so ignore those “best before” labels) – jars of honey have been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs and their contents were found to be still edible;
  • the average bee will make a 12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime; and
  • the male bees (drones) have big eyes, furry backs and no stings (they also do very little to help with the work of the hive but get fed and cared for and are left to do their own thing until its time to buzz off and have sex).
We laughed about the number of similarities between bees and humans. All in all, my guests and I had a good time. However, this is not a post about bees or even their resemblance to people. It is what happened afterwards that made me think…
Drawing of a bee by Dame Judi Dench
one of a number of postcards auctioned at the Bee Garden Party
Late this afternoon, there was a knock on our door – the family had returned with two boxes of eggs as a thank-you gift, as they said that they had had such a good time. How wonderful! The eggs had been laid by their hens (London is more rural than many people think) and there were different types in each box – dinky little Bantam ones and a larger collection, coloured a delicate shade of blue, laid by Araucana hens. It was the eggs that have got my brain whirring and made me decide to blog.

Are chickens eggs any different if they have blue, white or brown shells? Are some better for you than others? Why do yolks vary in colour from deep orange to a pale yellow?

So this is, indirectly, becoming a post about diversity.

What makes you feel you are different? Is there a difference or are appearances deceptive and superficial? Why do we reject and fear people who are different to us? What can we do to overcome stereotypes? Why are some people “hen-pecked”, whilst others like to be dominant and “rule the roost”?

Perhaps we should start with the hens…

The claim that Brown eggs are better for you than white ones is a myth. All hens’ eggs have the potential to be the same in taste and nutritional value, regardless of the colour of their shell. The colour of egg that a hen lays is dictated by the colour of its ear lobe (yes, hens have earlobes – it is a small feather-free area just below the bird’s ear). Hens with white lobes lay white eggs, those with red or brown skinned lobes lay brown eggs.

Many people erroneously believe that brown eggs are more nutritious and/or taste better than white ones. It is true that they usually cost more, but this is primarily due to the fact that the hens that lay them are larger and hence require more food, so their eggs are more expensive to produce. White eggs, due to the smaller size of the birds, are more cost efficient for commercial egg farmers to produce than brown (or indeed blue or green), which is why they are more common in the shops. It is the hens’ diet and the environment where they live that makes the difference as far as nutrition is concerned; for example, hens that roam outdoors produce eggs with 3 to 4 times the vitamin D content of their indoor-reared, restricted counterparts that have no access to direct sunlight. The environment for the hen is important for the quality of the egg, as is the condition of the bird: stressed chickens and older, tired hens or those that are hen-pecked and hence last to get near food lay eggs with thinner shells.

"Dead Hen" by Elizabeth Frink, 1957
I see similarities between egg-laying hens and humans in the workplace (which is not to say that people are battery hens) – like the birds, most workers have little immediate control over their environment (even changing the temperature and air conditioning can prove problematical). I am convinced that every individual has the potential to produce great results – regardless of colour, race, background or size. Like chickens, people deliver better outcomes when they are in a place that they find stress-free, supportive and conducive towards their giving of their best. We each need a situation that suits our physical well-being, with daylight, fresh air, an appropriate ambient temperature for us not to be in discomfort, and adequate space, a workplace where we can perform well without feeling under undue pressure or fearing harassment or bullying from those around us. If you want to know more about how to create a fantastic workplace, I urge you to read Neil Usher’s excellent book: The Elemental Workplace.

Hens with their Young, by Edgar Hunt 1905
Hens, like humans, are not always kind to each other – there’s a reason why we use the phrase “hen-pecked”. It is true that hens have a pecking order with some dominant and others having to play a more submissive role in their community. The term ‘pecking order’ for hens was first coined in 1921 by Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe to describe the hierarchy of flock dynamics and it came into popular usage in the 1930s. A flock in the wild is as strong as its weakest member. There is a dominance hierarchy in many societies and it is closely linked to the survival of the fittest – it serves a useful purpose in that it prevents the need for constant fighting - it ensures that the most dominant in a group can have access to limited resources ahead of the others and thereby maintain health and strength. Hens will peck and drive away an ill or injured member of their flock (a survival trait that has remained as a behaviour amongst domesticated fowl). It is important not to introduce fewer than 2 hens at a time to an existing flock (and even then they need to be kept apart and integrated gently over a period of weeks), unless you wish to risk a bird being literally pecked to death. 

Introducing hens
Humans are unlikely to kill a new colleague; we are not hens – we are rational beings and can control our baser urges. However, we are often unfriendly and unwilling to allow a new employee to socialise with an existing group of friends. It can feel very lonely and isolating joining a new team. Try not to be bird-brained and foul (see what I did there); a little kindness towards others can make a big difference to a new colleague – you never know, you also might make a new friend.

We, like hens, need to be well cared for. It is true that an employer has a duty of care towards the workers. However, we also owe it to ourselves to be careful ourselves. There are things each of us can do to help keep ourselves physically and mentally, including, but not limited to:
  • exercising,
  • eating a balanced diet,
  • sleeping for long enough on a regular basis to enable our bodies and minds to recharge,
  • drinking sufficient water to meet our bodies’ needs,
  • giving ourselves time in an environment that helps with our personal well-being (this could be in a gym, an art gallery, a field or forest or by the sea or near water)
These all help us to remain healthy and productive. Do you make the effort to be kind to yourself?

And finally – time to answer that long-asked question – “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”  The answer is the egg: hard-shelled eggs were laid by reptiles long before chickens came into existence.

We can learn a lot from the birds and the bees.

Ukrainian painted egg


  1. Replies
    1. Dear Jacky, thank you for your kind words. I'm so glad that you enjoyed it. It was lovely to meet you in real life at the Tweetup by the Thames.

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