What spiritual lessons can we glean from pollinators? Our resident animal chaplain offers wisdom from honeybees.
“What is that?” the mechanic queried, staring at a fuzzy spot on my Jeep’s engine block. I spied an intact, but most certainly dead, honey bee. “Oh no!” I gasped, reaching to relocate the tiny body into my palm. “Awwww,” gushed my burly companion.
At that instant, a simple oil change became an occasion for shared compassion. “What are you going to do with it?” he asked. “Why, bury her, of course,” I replied with a huge grin. I could almost see gears grinding in his brain as he considered how to respond—since he was, after all, initially trying to upsell me a transmission flush, not ponder the afterlife of insects. After a few moments, he offered, “That’s very kind of you.”
Most people understand why I help bury cats and dogs. Some even admire that I remove squashed squirrels and chipmunks from roadways. But when it comes to insects, humans generally feel little moral concern, and their responses to me are endlessly fascinating.
A case in point: Recently I wrote a digital column for S&H titled “An Ethical Obligation to Ticks?” Some readers appreciated this messy philosophical question, adding their thoughtful insights. On the flip side, one complained, “How do I stop seeing posts from this dimwit?”
Even my mother got involved, texting me, “I’m wondering what a tick does that aids the planet?” So we debated this, going back and forth until I conceded, “I guess it comes down to my belief that life itself has value for any living being, even for a tick.” She paused and declared, “Well, I’m definitely not choosing one for a pet.” (Fair point, Mom.)
Through this experience, I’ve realized pollinators, especially honey bees, hold an elevated status above other insects for us. (Ticks really ought to ask them for a publicist recommendation.) I suspected this was due to the increasing media coverage about their crucial role in assisting many of the plants we like to eat. And, it turns out, I was onto something.
Why Bees Matter
A peer-reviewed research study by Mona Lisa Schönfelder and Franz Xaver Bogner asked over 600 people to respond to this prompt: “I think bees are …” Perhaps unsurprisingly, bee experts responded in more positive ways to the phrase while novices were more likely to remark about potential dangers. A high percentage of respondents in both groups thought bees were useful and worthy of conservation.
Elaborating, many interviewees noted enjoyed using bee products. Others cited that honey bee pollination services are essential for humanity.
What makes a being worthy of conserving or worthy of care and protection? Does life have value in itself or only when a being can contribute to a greater whole? And above all, who made us judge and jury? Lately, it’s become evident to me that humans may never agree on the answers to any of these questions.
Perhaps, then, we can change tack for a bit, focusing on what sagacity bees might inspire within us.
Lesson 1: Keep it simple. When honey bees need pollen to raise their young, they prefer getting it from single-petaled flowers, avoiding navigating complex, multipetaled flowers, which take more time to access.
Consider: Where in my life am I overcomplicating details? Would something more straightforward suffice?
Lesson 2: Bee-ing here together. If you sit still and observe honey bees roving your garden, you might notice that each seems to specialize in traveling to a single type of plant.
The first might focus on lavender and the next on sage. Because honey bees live in highly structured social groups, they divide and conquer the workload, making the hive more efficient overall. Consequently, melittologists consider them a superorganism, meaning honey bees live individual lives and also function as an integrated, single unit.
Ponder: Am I micromanaging others? Where can I back off and let others do what they are called to do?
Lesson 3: Bee-ing alone and bee-ing yourself. Honey bees may be the best known bees, but most bees do not make honey and do not live in hives. Worldwide, less than 3 percent of bee species live in hives and less than 8 percent of bee species are social. Indeed, bees are extraordinarily diverse, with over 20,000 distinct species now known by humans.
Wonder: Do I stay busy socially to avoid solitude? Do I ever change myself to fit others’ expectations?
Lesson 4: Don’t take more than your share. I’d also be remiss not to note that there can be an unanticipated drawback when humans encourage too many honey bees to live in an area. Beekeeping can mean that native wild pollinators suffer. Healthy habitats need balance, and conservation endeavors can be unfathomably complex. Of course, human societies suffer from similar predicaments.
(If you are drawn to tending bees, pick up Laurence Packer’s Keeping The Bees: Why All Bees Are at Risk and What We Can Do to Save Them and What Bees Want: Beekeeping as Nature Intended by Jacqueline Freeman and Susan Knilans.)
Contemplate: Where might my desire for comfort be pushing others to the margins?
A Sacred Sendoff
The little honey bee from my engine block traveled home with me, nestled in the bottom of an unused coffee cup donated by the mechanic. Upon entering my house, I grabbed the small black ring box where I had previously placed a few creatures awaiting interment. (I am unshakeable in my conviction that every being is worthy of reverence upon death, and none deserves to be popped into a rubbish bin.) Thus, Honey Bee joined Fly, Spider, and Shield Bug in a tiny square makeshift hearse.
Treading carefully through our backyard—to minimize inadvertently adding another creature to the burial group—I arrived at my private necropolis. Kneeling, I placed each tiny corpse gently onto the leaf-covered earth. I spread a light layer of downed oak leaves over the group and whispered, “It’s time for you to be here now.”