Life Lessons We Can Learn from Honeybees

Published on June 23, 2016

Article by Terence Loose for Bodhi Tree

Michael Joshin Thiele didn’t develop his close relationship with honeybees through science or commerce. They came to him in dreams, he says, when he was living as a lay-ordained Zen monk at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, near Muir Beach, California. During a three-month winter retreat in the mountains, vivid dreams of bees filled his nights. So, when he returned to the mountains the following spring, he took an empty angular wooden bee box, the kind widely used in commercial beekeeping, with him. Bees quickly filled it.

The Natural Habitat of Honeybees

He contemplated the bees for weeks, and one day he had an epiphany: That bee box, designed to serve as a habitat for honeybees, was grossly mismatched to the natural habitat of the bee. “Its [angles] spoke a different language,” says Thiele. It was the language of the 19th century, he says, which was about crop maximization, profit, efficiency, but cared nothing of the health and longevity of the larger, living system occupying it.

In nature, bees live in an ovoid world, and their hives do not take angular shapes. So Thiele eventually built his own hives to recreate the natural habitats of bees: capsules shaped like hollowed out logs or dangling eggs made of rye straw and wood, designs that reflected the oneness of the colony. This “One Beeing” approach allows for all the individual bees to exist with one outer shell, like skin, that protects the inner climate and allows their lives to unfold according to their natural instincts. For the past 11 years, Thiele has been running a consulting service in northern California named Gaia Bees, through which he sells handmade hives and teaches apiculture, or beekeeping workshops, around the world.

Numerous Threats to Their Existence

Thiele believes that honeybees are under threat by the wrongheaded beekeeping industry. By using 19th century boxes, methods and logic, Thiele says honeybees are being systematically destroyed. While some disagree why, it is true that since World War II, the honeybee population has been in decline.

The decline could be disastrous to, among others, the $11 billion almond industry in California’s Central Valley, where each year more than a million beehives are trucked in to pollinate millions of almond trees. Because of shortsighted agriculture and apiculture practices—such as the use of pesticides, non-organic beehives, honeybee crowding, and more—Thiele says the almond industry’s days may be numbered.

Thiele worries that if we don’t change to a more bee-centric approach, the species could disappear entirely. He likens the realization to that of the awakening in the 1970s that the widely used pesticide DDT was toxic. “In the case of DDT, what seemed so … necessary and full of service before, all of a sudden turned into the opposite, because we realized DDT’s true impact on the biosphere. It’s all about awareness and knowledge,” Thiele says. It was a simple yet profound shift in understanding, he says.

What We Can Learn from Honeybees

Michael Joshin Thiele holding beehive without protective gear.
Courtesy Michael Joshin Thiele

Thiele also believes that honeybees offer a unique opportunity for us to learn how to live in harmony with each other, and the planet. We can see this in every aspect of the honeybee’s existence, Thiele tells Bodhi Tree in his calm, German-accented voice. They’re not cutting down flowers in order to eat. They’re not stealing anything, or killing, he says. He adds that practically everything they create is medicinal, from their propolis to pollen, wax and honey.

Honeybees, he explains, also practice sophisticated decision-making group processes and portray high “ethical” and “cultural” values within each of its individual members. “The entire biosphere becomes a network of relations as bees connect intimately with the landscape,” he says. “The fundamental sense of self and identity of each bee is linked to the wellbeing of the whole and is infused with altruism, service and love.”

In this way, Thiele, who uses no protective gear and handles the entire hive of bees with his bare hands, sees honeybees as the ultimate teachers of a new, more interdependent and compassionate way of living. And it’s a lesson he sees as vital to our own survival.


Published on: June 23, 2016

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