The beehive. Image of a future fit for humans

By Karsten Massei, June 2018

When beekeepers talk about their bees, anyone who is not a beekeeper is left somewhat at a loss. They become witness to an enthusiasm which is difficult to comprehend for the non-specialist. There is clearly a special relationship between beekeepers and their bees. Why is that so? And does it help us to say anything about our future?

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

It is clear that beekeeping is demanding work. But the hard work is rewarded with special experiences: we only need to see the shining eyes of a beekeeper talking about their work, about the honey harvest, catching a swarm or how they have heard the virgin queen piping – that’s the technical term!

And there’ more. I have spoken with beekeepers who openly admitted that bees saved their life. An elderly man told me how as a child in care used as cheap labour he had found solace only with the bee colony his master had left him to look after. Subsequently he had always kept bees. Some beekeepers count bees among their most important teachers which undoubtedly contributed to their character development.

Sometimes it is difficult to escape the impression that beekeepers owe more to their bees than they can express in words. I could never share the assumption that humans occupy a higher position than animals. In earlier times, animals were perceived as the messengers between worlds who were placed at the side of humans to help them on their path on earth. They were looked up to because it was known or felt that a wisdom lived in them which humans with the power of their consciousness could only achieve with difficulty. Unlike humans, they have not fallen out of the greater context of life but are situated right at its centre.

Something also lives in every animal that points beyond humans. It shows them something that they had to leave behind on their path to becoming human. Humans experience themselves as autonomous and self-determined personalities. As a result they have lost their connection with the cosmos and nature. It is not possible for animals to deny that connection, but conversely that also makes it impossible for them to develop into autonomous beings

The wisdom of bees

The German language has the ancient term for a bee colony of “der Bien” (die Biene = bee) which attributes to the hive and, indeed, the colony that it actually is an independent being. Anyone who takes the trouble to sit down at a beehive to watch the activity will be deeply touched by what they see. These small animals fly out, return laden with pollen, slip into the darkness of the hive and immediately others crawl out to hasten away. A particular scent streams from the hive, a humming surrounds the observer and they feel as if they don’t know what is happening to them, as if they were enchanted.

There are many reasons to be fascinated by bees. One of them is the wisdom with which they live together. Every beehive consists of many thousands of insects which work together in a wondrous way. The colony appears to the observer as a complete organism which develops and multiplies, feeds itself, lays in supplies and produces heat. How does the individual bee, but also, how does the bee colony know what needs to be done? The question arises as to the entity which is responsible for such collaboration. We will seek a brain in a bee colony in vain. We can rightly ask what kind of “being” we are dealing with when we keep a bees.

The study of bees will, in the shorter or longer term, lead to the insight that we are only at the very beginning of learning to understand them. Although we have learnt a lot about them, particularly in the last 150 years, they basically remain unknown, mysterious beings even to the experienced beekeeper.

The beekeeper will know a lot about their cycles and when what needs to be done: but does he or she really know them? The nature of bees slips away from the person who wants to draw near to them. The more we know about the life of bees, the more mysterious they become.

But there’s more. Something emanates from bees from which the beekeeper cannot shut themselves off. The bees “speak” to them in a way which cannot easily be explained. One beekeeper described what is meant here in the words: “When I open a colony, I can only do it with the greatest care. Actually, I have the feeling that I am doing something which is not quite right. It is as if I am looking into a soul, namely my own.” A feeling of humility und reverence sets in.

The beekeeper feels that the bees remind them of what is most sacred to them. One beekeeper reports that they had woken in the middle of the night with the feeling that their bees had suffered harm. Shortly afterwards they discovered that one of their colonies had been deliberately pushed over. Or another saw before their inner eye the place where the swarm which they had recently caught should be located. Another one again tells that a swarm had settled with them and had done so in a phase of life in which the beekeeper had needed consolation. One beekeeper said: “We have to learn to dream alongside the bees. They know what’s best for them, what they need … you just have to listen …”

Speaking colonies

What does the language of bees consist of? How do they communicate and how can it be learnt? We have to ask this question particularly in a time in which their health is at risk. Because conventional measures are increasingly ineffective. When as beekeepers we rely on what we have learnt, we are often enough left in the lurch. Would it not be more logical to ask the bees themselves?

The bee colony speaks. It does so, like every other being, to begin with in an outer way in how it reveals itself to us, through phenomena which can be observed. The bee colony shows the attentive observer a wealth of manifestations of life. Thus every bee colony produces a series of healing substances which each in themselves are something special (wax, honey, propolis, bee venom, pollen). Each of these substances is “endowed” with remarkable abilities.

Every colony consists of three different types of animal: of workers, drones and a queen. Although all three beings are needed to form a bee colony which can survive, they are completely different in the way they live and yet together they form a unity. The workers are responsible for the concrete substance transformation of the bee colony, they are the bees which we see on blossoms, which fly in and out, which secure the basic existence of the colony. The drones mate with the queens. To this end they gather in particular locations in the landscape, the so-called drone congregation areas which are visited by the young queens. The queen accomplishes an incredible amount over the years in that she lays all the eggs from which all the bees in her colony originate. But she is also the centre of the bee colony. When she dies, the colony dies with her unless it manages to produce a new queen.

Another thing to be mentioned alongside the substances and the three bee creatures is the bee year. The development of a bee colony is determined by always the same laws and cycles. Yet each bee colony “plays” with these laws in its own way. The variations in which this archetypal image comes to expression in the individual colonies are inexhaustible. The beekeeper will thus always be surprised by the behaviour of their colonies.

The bee year is marked by certain events. In February, while it is still cold outside and the bees only rarely have the opportunity to fly out, the queen already starts to lay the first eggs. Breeding starts without the beekeeper knowing anything about it because they will know better than to open their colonies to the cold at this time. They know that the bees cannot tolerate any disturbance during the time that they are dormant in the winter. Then the days grow warmer and the time comes when the bees fly out for the first time. As the flowers begin to blossom, the colony starts to bestir itself. In the meantime the queen bee has started to lay many eggs each day. The first young bees hatch and replace the winter bees which have brought the colony through the cold season of the year.

In May the colony has as a rule reached such a magnitude that it starts to swarm. The workers have long built queen cells from which the next queen will soon hatch. The old queen eventually swarms with a part of the colony, leaving the ancestral hive and taking wing to found a new colony. When the swarm has flown, it will quite soon gather on a nearby branch and form a cluster. From there scout bees will search for suitable hollows which the colony can occupy. If the beekeeper discovers the cluster in time, they can catch it by shaking the branch and accommodating it in one of their beehives. Otherwise they will lose the swarm.

The bees which have not swarmed remain in the hive with the brood. Soon the queen hatches but she is still a virgin. After a few days she embarks on her wedding flight on which she mates with the drones. Afterwards her laying activity starts.

The mood in the bee colony changes after St John’s Tide. The queen now lays fewer eggs which means that the number of bees decreases. The colony gradually begins to prepare for winter. The drones no longer return or are driven out of the hive by the workers. The increasingly colder days allow for only few flights out of the hive. The colony sits on the honey supplies which have to last for the winter during which time it cannot gather nectar. It forms the winter cluster in which the bees cuddle close up to one another and produce a constant heat so that they can survive. As winter progresses, this cluster moves along the honey stored in the combs. The bees can fly out only on rare occasions, for the rest of the time they stay in the winter cluster during these months.

Every bee colony obeys the pattern described above but no year is like any other. On the basis of the phenomena which have been described (substances, three types of bee, bee year), beekeepers practise listening to the language of the bees. But that is only in preparation for what comes next. Because no language can be understood without being internalised.

A phenomenon can only be filled with meaning if we begin to pay attention to its effect on our own soul nature. Every impression received by the senses echoes in the inner landscape of the soul. Every impression provokes a reaction in the soul. When the observer watches this attentively, they combine their inner world with the external sensory one in the cognitive process. It requires that we must trust the wisdom of our own soul. New experiences will open up as a result. There will be contact with other beings which can only occur in the human soul. The senses are not equipped for it. Only our inner senses are capable of such an encounter with another being.

In looking at the phenomena described above in this way, we can see that the substances produced by bees are essential also for themselves. They have a healing action not just for humans (for example in the form of wax, honey, propolis and bee venom) but they also serve the bees themselves in so far as these substances enable them to provide for their existence. Every substance has an essential action for the bee colony which corresponds to the healing action on human beings.

When we look at the bee year with our inner vision, we can recognise the various stages (swarm, wedding flight, winter cluster) as expressions of a soul nature. They express the nature of the bee colony at a soul level. Such a perspective gives real meaning and justification to the concept of the German term der Bien (see above).

The path of the bee

If we wish to penetrate to the nature of bees it is difficult to know where to start: with the honey, with the queen, the swarming process, the construction of the comb? Every detail of their life is important.

But we can experience something more when we approach the nature of bees in listening mode. It seems as if a profoundly hidden region of our own soul was responding to the encounter with bees.

We embark on a path which can rightly be called the “path of the bee”. The beekeeper follows this path in caring for their bees – but they only follow it so far because the nature of bees will remain foreign to them, even though they husband them, if they do not include a cognitive approach alongside the practical one. We can also approach the nature of bees inwardly, meditatively. We can penetrate the phenomena we observe in them inwardly and with our awareness at an ever deeper level and thus encounter the nature of bees in an ever new way.

The literature keeps referring to the comparison between the social life of humans and the order in which the bees live together in the bee colony. In doing so it is forgotten that there is no freedom among bees. The individual bee cannot be compared with the human individuality. The individual bee is wholly integrated into the process of nature in which the bee colony lives.

The bee colony is not a model for human community. We get further if we don’t compare the community but the individual person with the bee colony.

The imaginative look reveals that the bee colony is an image of the human soul, that is to say the soul forces which humans will have at their disposal in the future. In looking at a bee colony, human beings are looking at themselves, not as they are now but as they can be. Seen in this light, the impressive wisdom of the bees is a genuine image of the future forces of human beings.

The nature of the individual colony

There is no animal about which Rudolf Steiner said as much as the bees. The following quote is particularly remarkable: “The beekeeper looks after the beehive in a given year and in the next year it is inhabited by a completely different bee colony, it has been completely replaced except for the queen, it contains a whole lot of young bees. How is the sense of togetherness supposed to arise in that? […] The sense of togetherness is based on the incredible wisdom which lives in the beehive, it is not just this particular group of individual bees but the beehive really has a concrete soul of its own.” (GA 233, 30.12.1923)

The statement that every beehive “really has a concrete soul of its own” can give us food for thought. Here Rudolf Steiner gives a clear indication of what the beehive should be understood to mean. We are still on the way to realising the content of this statement in the way we husband bees. For if we take it seriously, it changes our relationship with these amazing animals in a profound way.

About the author: Karsten Massei has for many years undertaken research into the phenomena of life with the methods of supersensory perception. He is the author of several books, a seminar facilitator and teaches at a special needs day school in Switzerland.