June, 2011

 

Mythic Prelude:

Lifting the Lid
Welcome to the Universal Festival Calendar for June, 2011. We begin where I live here in Pisac, Peru, at the Sacred Valley Apiary and Bee Sanctuary. This is where Jerry and Nancy Freeman teach "natural, sustainable beekeeping through education, research, and the development of a honey bee sanctuary where people can experience the healing of the land, the honey bees, and, ultimately, the human being. Through the sacredness of keeping bees, people will have an opportunity to re-connect to Nature and the web of life. . . . We recognize the bees' precarious viability at this time in history, and we seek to gather insights and educate others about environment and hive management activities that support honeybees in having natural, vital lives."
"When you lift the lid off the hive box," Jerry explains, "the bees' buzzing goes up in pitch. Put the lid back on, and the buzz calms down." How might this be, right now, one of the ways in which bees have been said to resemble us, or, more charitably to the bees, to mirror how we might be? Well, this depends on which hive you are in. If you're Big Pharma, then your lid is suddenly a lot less tamper-proof than it used to be, now that Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has just signed America's first single-payer health care law.
If you're the Miami police, the lid has just been hijacked by criminals posing as cops, and your commissioners know what this means: If this disturbing trend is not checked, then crooks pretending to be police will outnumber the plainclothes provocateur cops who are causing even more trouble pretending to be political activists. If you're Israel, your usual baritone buzz has just gone coloratura now that Egyptian generals have taken one lid off the Gaza border, in order to clamp back down on their own people another lid that just doesn't seem to want to stay put. If you're a king or dictator anywhere in the Middle East, you wonder whether the lid is ever going to come back down, and if you may be right under it when it does. And if you're in that shrinking majority of people who still believe in a re-al world of solid things and provable facts, then even the good news that Jupiter will enter the money sign of Taurus (on June 3), like Frank Sinatra walking into Twenty One, will be scant comfort as the US national debt has just hit the $14.3 trillion legal limit -- double the country's annual gross domestic product -- and the lid looks like it's either gone for good, or, as politicians are playing games with default talk again, it could get nailed back down hard by someone with a hammer made in China.
So many lids, so many opinions among people who've never heard of the hive mind, and are afflicted with the sweaty, slippery discomfort of separatosis. So -- what do we do and where do we go in these parlous times? We go to our home key of C for community, and to the rhythms of mythic time, which have always guided us and still do because they're cyclical and eternal, founded in the true and universal experience of the collective human heart, and strong enough to hold their depth and direction whatever the errant, fevered human mind may want and do. And we're in a month now when our mythic mind is flowing in a stream toward the first water sign in the zodiac, at the midpoint of the Earth year.
This month the Sun moves through the air sign of Gemini and enters Cancer at what the Northern hemisphere calls the Summer Solstice: the annual transition point when masculine solar energy reaches its peak in the longest days of the year, and the lunar feminine now begins to wax as the days grow shorter through the six months until Dec. 20, Mother Night. Thus Cancer is ruled by the Moon, is linked with the element of water and the fourth house of home and motherhood, and is sacred to the Wise Woman in her active and mature roles as the Grandmother who runs the practical, domestic economy of the home, and the Matriarch who manages the spiritual economy of the community. It's time, especially as we saw the principles of the Hive Mind at work in Egypt in April, to take a closer look at why teachers from Plato to Marx and Tolstoy have seen the bee hive as the epitome of efficient political economy. At how bees inspired Eric Bonabeau and Christopher Meyer's idea that the swarm intelligence of the group mind can make better decisions than its most brilliant individual members. And why the female worker bee may be not only the closest thing to a human mother in the whole insect queendom, but could also teach the most accomplished human maestras of multitasking a thing or ten.
Quantum Effort: the Female Worker Bee
The structure of order in the hive is simple and practical. "It's a matriarchal society," as Jerry Freeman sees it. "You have one queen, thousands of sterile female worker bees, and a few drones. But there's no one in charge, so it's a synergy, a collective hive mind. It's the Borg. The queen's job is to lay eggs. She will mate only once in her life, with several drones, and she has enough genetic material to lay 3,000 eggs a day for up to seven or eight years. She gives out ectohormones that have certain controls over the hive, and one is to suppress the other bees from making another queen."
The variety of jobs a female worker bee does in the few months of her lifespan is astonishing in its range and versatility, in the lightning switches she makes from one skill set to another, and in the increasingly heroic effort that she expends as she flies bravely into her twilight. There are no child labor laws in the hive. The moment a new female chews through the wax cap of her brood cell, she starts her first job as a maid who cleans her own cell and others near it. She may become a court bee, who cleans and feeds the queen, helps her move from cell to cell, and assists her in laying her eggs. As a female gets older and learns the layout of the hive, she may serve as a nurse bee, feeding the larvae in the brood area. Or she may be a freight carrier, who delivers nectar, pollen and propolis as needed to the queen, the nurses and the male drones -- at dusk, when the drones are back from hanging out all afternoon with their buddies -- and to the other specialists whose work is crucial to the hive's life.
Any female can do short-term construction jobs, secreting wax to build new cells when an expanding hive population requires them. But the most skilled builders use propolis to caulk the cracks in the hive for heat insulation and medicine -- propolis is also a powerful antibiotic -- and to keep out parasites and to seal and quarantine in the corners of the hive box all pesticide-tainted food material that has somehow gotten past the guard bees at the hive door. They protect the hive from intruders -- including hungry drones, who become unwelcome when food supplies get low -- and run a strict quality control gate, where they reject low-grade nectar and pollen, which the forager bee who brought them must now unload somewhere outside.
The most important in-house specialists may be the older females who work as heater bees, who are responsible for maintaining the hive at a constant temperature of 95° F. They occupy empty cells in the brood area, disconnect their wings, then use all their strength to vibrate and shiver, so they generate heat, and other bees work full time to keep the food cells near the heaters full and fresh. So critical is this role, and so immense the energy that the heaters burn, that up to 75% of the nectar that becomes honey, and the pollen protein, is used as fuel to keep the hive warm. What happens if it gets too warm? Some females shift at once to become cooler bees, who fan the air with their wings to evaporate water that has been brought into the hive specifically to cool it.
A typical female may do almost all these jobs inside the hive. But no matter how skilled and energetic she gets, she'll never become -- or aspire to be -- the Head Nurse, the Pollen Quartermaster or Chief Minister to the Queen. There are no hierarchies here, no ranks, honors or awards. All decision-making is collective, intuitive and instantaneous. No individual bee ever negotiates or tries to unload an entry-level grunt job on a younger intern bee. She switches jobs at once, in response to what the hive mind says it needs, and gets on it.
When a female is old and strong enough, she's ready to serve in later life as a forager. She'll make up to ten flights a day, sometimes for miles each time, and while most foragers bring back one thing the hive needs, some will load themselves like Mack trucks, flying back with their honey sacs full of nectar, their leg joints packed with propolis and their leg hairs heavy with pollen. And when a forager's cargo is loaded in and we may think it's time for a well-earned rest, she completes her duty by performing the bee dance, as shown here in Juergen Tautz's The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism, to communicate her food route to the other foragers.
She waggles along a straight line, moves in a semicircle back to where she began, waggles again along the same line, then draws the opposing semicircle to create a circle bisected by the waggle. Its wavy pattern, as in this example, illustrates the rough terrain of a densely wooded area like this one.
As if all of this were not ingenious enough, the angle of the line drawn within the circle indicates the forager's flight direction, and corrects it to allow for changes in the Sun's position in the hour since the forager left the hive. The dance is done on the wax honeycomb, which the bees tune by cutting holes in the corners and other parts of the comb, to provide the optimum frequency for communicating what the other foragers need to know. In total darkness, the female bee dancer can tell the others where she got this nectar, how far to fly, in which direction, and how to correct for changes in the Sun's position, as the planet rotates. The quality of her communication is astonishing, as she also receives signals from larvae who secrete ectopheromones to tell her what food materials they need, and how much of them. Pheromone signals from larvae may also recruit house bees as new foragers by notifying them that it's time for them to act as food gatherers.

A forager sees only in black and white when she is flying fast to her target, but can see in color when she slows down at her destination. It helps that her vision is ultraviolet-sensitive, so that this flower looks plain yellow to you and me, but looks like the lights on an airport runway to a forager bee.

The bees speak an intricate language of scent with each other, and with the plants, so a forager becomes multilingual in communicating with dozens of different plants whose flowers she visits. A plant whose pollen supply gets too low produces a sharp-smelling bee repellent until it can replenish its pollen, and can then afford to share it again. A bee who has just harvested a flower leaves a scent to alert other bees that this source is tapped out for now -- but the moment the flower is ready to receive another bee, the scent dissipates.
Are there any more jobs that a female worker bee can do during a life that can last months in the less active winter time, but may span only a few weeks in the summer, when foragers are gathering all the food they can to last the hive through the cold season? Yes. There is always something to do and there is no limit to the worker bee's adaptability. Under unusual conditions, especially if the queen is old or dead, foragers can revert back to the jobs they had when they were younger, and they could secrete royal jelly from the glands in their jaws to feed female bees who are queen candidates. So bees can actually get younger, and activate again abilities they used to have, reversing the normal aging process if the hive needs it. And there is one more young person's job that some foragers do in service to the queen as she makes the most important journey of her life.
When it is time for a new queen to mate, she flies beyond the workers' normal foraging range, some two to seven miles, where only the toughest foragers can follow her. They constitute an air force -- imagine a squadron of F-16's, except all the pilots are women and none of them are evangelical Christian fanatics -- who protect the queen from other insects and birds until she can reach her destination. This is where the male drones finally come in. As the queen gets to one of the drone congregation areas where the drones from all the nearby hives gather to hang out with the other males, she begins to fly up in a steep spiral, and go so high that only the hardiest drones can reach her, to perform the fatal act of mating with her. The warriors escort the queen back to the hive. The drones, who are unable to forage for themselves, return to the hive at sunset and get food from the female house bees, who will refuse them if supplies are low and must be conserved for the hive's central imperative of serving the queen and the larvae, and keeping everyone well heated and fed.
Do the fighters who've just guarded the queen get to relax now at an officers' club over tables full of pork and beer, watch bee football and hive hockey on a big TV and hear "You're the queen of my heart" on the jukebox? No. They have a few days, even only a few hours to live, and when the end comes the forager usually dies outside the hive, untended and unmourned, her last aim being, like all the rest, to contribute what she can and otherwise get out of the way, so that others won't have to divert for her benefit any energy that is needed to support and perpetuate the hive.
The Immortal Superorganism
Will human beings start lining up around the block for a chance to live like the bees? Not today. It is no wonder that the hive's life is not better known. While hard-working women may groan "Yes! That's it!" at seeing themselves mirrored in the female bees, men will hardly find the drone image flattering, or accept that getting laid only once, glorious as it may be, is really worth dying for. And almost everyone wants a mate, and children of their own. So what makes the life of the bees so admirable, and so useful for us now?
We'll revisit the Sacred Valley Apiary in the year ahead as its teachings grow and spread, and awakening human beings get more willing to consider the life of the bees in relation to the Aquarian intentional communities we create as we begin spontaneously to live in hive mind, even when we have no idea what this is, synergies replace hierarchies, and the old agonies of duality, secrecy, scarcity and competition give way to the new unity, transparency, abundance consciousness and cooperation that will enable us to care better for ourselves and our hive on Earth. We will understand how the ideas James Surowiecki presents in The Wisdom of Crowds -- more of this too in my new book Surfing Aquarius, coming in September -- can relieve us of the terrible pressure to excel, to be noticed and praised and to crave external validation, and can enable us to gain deeper satisfaction from service to greater goals.
We'll touch on only a few mythic themes here.
Bees have been symbols of industrious honesty, thrift and justice for millennia now, and their "human" qualities have been noted in images like this ancient seal (left) of a sphinx-headed bee goddess from Rhodes.
What the bee meant to the Egyptians may be of much greater interest, and it involves much more than the standard phrase in each pharaoh's praenomen, or throne name, identifying him as "he of sedge and bee," as shown at right, as these symbols represented respectively the regions of upper and lower Egypt, united under the king's rule. Ancient Nile myths tell of how bees are created when the tears of Ra, neter of the Sun, touch the desert sand, and how gold is said to be the flesh of the neters. The correspondence is natural and universal. Just as gold remains pure, and does not react with any other element that can change or corrupt it, pure honey has the same miraculous property, and even today archaeologists discover jars of crystallized honey that has been buried for thousands of years, but can be liquefied with a little heat back into perfect food and medicine.
There's a practical reason why princes of the realm and the church, most notably French rulers from the Merovingian kings to Napoleon and beyond, have used the bee in their regalia and in heraldic crests like this one, of the Barberini pope Urban VIII. They clearly intend that just as honey and the hive are potentially immortal, so will their names be too. After all, a hive can live forever when it is left alone to live as it will, undisturbed by bad weather or interference from other species, replacing individual bees as we replace the cells of our bodies.
As Jerry sees it, the colony collapse syndrome that has been widespread in recent years, and has been attributed to every malevolent agency on earth and coming from other planets, is no mystery. It happens when clumsy or greedy commercial beekeepers fail to protect their hives from pesticides like the poisons in Monsanto corn, or harvest all the honey their bees produce, and replace it with sugar water, so the bees lose their food supply. Or inept beekeepers damage the honeycomb, which Jerry sees as "the largest organ of the colony. It stores everything, including information."
It's time to leave for now this superorganism that thrives as long as the many thousands of organisms within it are free to live in flexible cooperation with each other, without needing their own opinions and agendas. No wonder they sing together so well. The buzzing is likely to get louder and more sonorous now. Listen for it. The bees may be singing to us, and waiting for us to pick up the tune. It may be time to start Holding Their Frequency.
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The Chiron - Neptune Conjunction of 2008 - 2012:
Prelude (Nov. 2008) and Acts 1 - 5 (April 2009 - Nov. 2010): see UFC Index
2012: The End of . . . What?
Copyright 2011 Dan Furst. All Rights Reserved.