Building a Sustainable Future – The Honeybee has got this licked!

A honeybee gathering nectar from a cherry flower

As you spoon some delicious golden honey onto your toast, have you ever wondered how an insect so small as a honey bee can be the basis of such a large and diverse industrial economy?

I know I have!

It doesn’t just provide a widely available sweet treat for the breakfast table.

Its related products form the basis of products as diverse as cosmetics, home decor and art supplies.

Its pollination is worth billions to the farming sector.

Bees have been doing what bees do for millions of years without our help.

The role of the beekeeper is to engage with the process so that the health and welfare of the colony is supported and excess product can be easily and reliably harvested.

This is going on all over the world.

Millions of small wooden boxes, each containing a single colony of approximately 30,000 bees are being tended by beekeepers from the poorest villages in Africa to the industrial scale migratory beekeeping pollinators following the flowering of crops from one side of the US to the other. 

What is the honey bee’s secret?

The honey bee’s “super power” is their ability to manage resources and communication with astonishing accuracy and sophistication. 

They can do this because  they have learned a very valuable lesson.

Small is beautiful!

They limit the size of their colonies by splitting to create new ones when they get too big for efficient communication and resource management.

There must be enough food and room to sustain the development of the colony and expand to build a foraging force to exploit nectar and pollen that the local flowers and trees provide.

If the colony is getting too big to manage efficiently the workers select an egg that the queen has laid and put it into a special “queen cell”. They feed it a special mixture of pollen and honey with hormones and raise it as a new queen.

The existing queen must leave the hive with all the foraging bees to find a new home. 

This is a “swarm”. The new colony starts to build comb and the queen starts laying immediately.

Having A Big Hive Is Not A Good Idea.

You may think that the bigger the hive the more honey you get. Economies of scale, maximise the productivity per unit. Good times.

Well not really.

Certainly, if a colony is very productive you can stack more supers (honey boxes) on top.

The problems arise when you need to manage and inspect the colony. 

The more frames the colony has the greater the chance that disease can spread to a larger number of bees. Having manageable sized colonies means that if something goes wrong only one unit is affected. 

No beekeeper would want all their bees in one basket!

Bees manage themselves so well because they have a supremely efficient communication system. 

Each bee takes responsibility for their allotted tasks. 

So long as the colonies stay at the right size the bees manage perfectly well by themselves.

Beekeepers manage colonies in concert with the natural behaviour of the bees.

The Business World Has Been Disrupted

It’s not just Covid-19.

Information technology, social media and machine learning (AI) have disrupted the old business paradigms for ever.

The old assumption was that getting to “critical mass” required bank loans and/or venture capital. Once achieved, economies of scale will balance income and expenditure and the successful business is self sustaining without further need of investment.

However, those were the days when the mechanics of decision making were supported by slow and unwieldy manual processes and face to face meetings. You needed to keep the physical distances between the parties in those interactions as short as possible. 

It made sense to build huge, impressive office buildings that required equally huge organisational structures just to keep those processes running. 

In many cases, this management overhead is no longer necessary or sustainable.

A New World of Business Opportunity

The writing is on the wall:

  • The 2008 subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent bailout of the banks made it clear that allowing big businesses to get “too big to fail” is not a good idea.
  • The spectacular collapse of a major UK corporation and many others that got fat on government contracts but failed to build resilience into their business models.
  • The measurable effects of climate change are telling us that we have very little time left to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

The internet and the development of highly sophisticated technical means of real time communication have given us a way forward. 

Covid-19 and the resulting lockdowns have taught many companies that they can manage perfectly well with a “work from home” workforce

Today, the level of sophistication in communication and information technology is rewriting the rules. 

  • So long as governments don’t sabotage it with ill-informed interference. 
  • So long as self-interested mega corporations don’t exploit and trivialize it for their own ends.
  • So long as criminal elements can be persuaded to stop sabotaging it.

  The way forward is clear:

  • We must start to communicate with each other in a more empathetic and effective way to rebuild our trust in community spirit. 
  • We need to allow people to be responsible and proud of the part they are individually playing in building the future. 
  • We need to give small resilient businesses the help they need to provide long-term sustainable employment to their local communities. 

We build to manageable sizes, split to form the basis of new enterprises and just keep collaborating and communicating with each other.

We can build a resilient and sustainable future by creating large numbers of resilient, agile, sustainable small businesses that sustain their local communities. 

Just like the honey bee.