one twelfth

I watched a TED Talk recently about bees and have since decided that bees are in my top 10 favourite animals. I mean, they could probably be in the top 5, but I don’t really know what my favourite animals actually are beyond the first two, so I can’t say for sure. Just never gave it much thought, I suppose.

But this post isn’t about me — it’s about bees and the wonderful work they do. The talk, if you’re interested, is by Marianne Gee, and is titled “Want to change the world? Think like a bee”. The title intrigued me because I was probably in the middle of an existential crisis, or just out of one. Highly recommended, though, even if you have never despaired at how impossible it seems to make any worthwhile impact or change.

Anyway… One of the important things I learnt, which I suppose I kind of already knew, was that bees are used extensively in agriculture to pollinate fruit and vegetable plants, but they are actually utilised in a way that makes a lot of fresh produce technically not vegan. Gee explains this quite well in her talk, but it’s basically because a lot of farms only produce a single type of crop. This means the farm only has flowers for a very limited time each year, and then, for the rest of the year, there’s nothing to sustain naturally occurring pollinators, so they simply don’t exist.

What I didn’t know about all of this, though, was that it leads to a higher risk and higher incidence of diseases amongst bees. It’s apparently a really big problem, centred around the fact that the bees are transported very long distances from where they naturally live, and are hence exposed to new diseases, parasites and chemicals. Staggering as this is, this was not the most stunning thing I learnt from her talk.

The one thing that really stuck with me from Gee’s talk was that the average honeybee, in her lifetime of about 6-8 weeks, will only make one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. (Her whole life for one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey!) Gee said bees have to work hard to produce enough honey so that the hive/colony will survive the winter. In many cases, the bee does not live long enough to even consume any fraction of her small portion of honey. Still, the bee does not question her work, her contribution or the purpose of what she’s doing. The bee simply does what she needs to do for the colony.

One twelfth of a teaspoon! And just think how many bees are needed to produce a single jar of honey!

This actually reminded me of what Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations about how bees (and other things, like the vine that produces grapes) “are unconscious of the good they do”, but they continue to do what they do nonetheless. And this is why bees are in my top 10 favourite animals — they just seem so noble and humble. I mean, they probably just don’t know any other way to live, or any other way to be, but they are still admirable, I suppose.

And, actually, it didn’t take much for me to recall this quote from Meditations because I’d browsed through my blog archives recently, and had come across that post I had written about it. I had also been thinking about another passage, which, although it appears later in the book, I feel is related to the whole bee concept:

It is wholly possible to become a ‘divine man’ without anybody’s recognition.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7, Chapter 67

Often, I (unintentionally) mis-remember this quote as “it is wholly possible to be a good person without anybody’s recognition”, but I suppose that’s still quite similar in meaning to the original, and is just as true. And I think the reason why this resonates with me so much is actually because of religious studies in my younger years.

During my childhood, I learnt about various aspects of Christianity and Buddhism, amongst other religions. One principle from Christianity that has stayed with me all these years is that all charity should be given or conducted privately. That is, you should not boast of the good things you have done.

At some point in my adolescent or teenage years, I learnt from Buddhism that wanting causes suffering, and this has become a significant guiding principle for me. I feel like this links back to the “private charity” thing because it encourages people to be selfless, and discourages people from seeking recognition or reward for doing something good.

The sentence directly preceding the one I quoted above is probably worth including here too:

And do not think, just because you have given up hope of becoming a philosopher or a scientist, you should therefore despair of a free spirit, integrity, social conscience, obedience to god [sic]
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7, Chapter 67

I think too often we’re made to believe that we must endeavour to be outstanding, to be great in some way, and be applauded for it. And if we’re not getting regular promotions, not receiving prestigious accolades, not being acknowledged for our good work in some tangible or public way, then we are inadequate or worthless. But bees (and Marcus Aurelius) have taught me that this is not true. Every contribution counts, whether it is praised by anyone or not.

I have often been asked if I want to own or be the manager of my own pharmacy, and some people have also asked if I’d consider doing a Masters degree or a PhD — something on top of my basic Bachelor of Pharmacy degree. But most of the time my answer is “no”. And there have been times when I’ve wondered about my lack of cut-throat ambition, and I’ve wondered if “no” is the right answer; but, honestly, I feel like I can do a lot more good by focusing on where I am than by fixing my sights on lofty peaks.

So, although my favourite animals are eagles and tigers, and although my Patronus is a horse and I’m a Hufflepuff which is represented by the badger (both determined according to the PotterMore website) — despite the strength and ferocity usually associated with these animals that I’m drawn to, my guiding animal, for now at least, is the humble bee.

4 thoughts on “one twelfth

  1. Watching something like that is a balm to all the other stuff-and-nonsense that invades our consciousness, particularly these days. I suppose the problem is always the awareness we have that animals lack – we think about the meaning of what we do and often need to be motivated in ways animals don’t. I continue to think too, about whether to keep to myself the good things I do, and if I don’t, make myself consider seriously WHY I want people to know. And– If I recall, it was you who suggested to me that sharing the good things (I do) could inspire others, which is a novel and compelling way to look at it. Thanks for another thoughtful post!

    • I do remember that! Was it something about helping clean up your neighbourhood? I suppose it’s all in the delivery of the message, and depends on your own expectations of the outcome of sharing it (?)

      But, yes, I agree, this awareness and ruminating sets us apart from animals who might be motivated by survival instincts alone. It is not enough to just survive – we want to be better.

  2. This is so weird. Sofagirl sent me the Bee Ted Talk a few days ago and I watched it last night before bed. And now I read about it here. What about 30% to 50% of bee colonies dying every winter? I had no idea.
    I think it takes self-knowledge and acceptance to realize what is best for us, without giving in to the pressure of society, always pushing us to be more, to make more, to earn more. Good for you.

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