Are bees busy?

Nobody takes animal metaphors too seriously, of course, but then few seem so apt as the busy bee. The constant buzzing of a beehive suggests its members are all toiling away but in fact bees take quite a laid-back attitude to work.

They’re not exactly slackers, though. Every worker honeybee, during her short life, goes through a series of job changes. Soon after hatching she begins cleaning out cells in the hive. Later she helps nurse the young and feed the queen. Later still, when her body is ready, she begins producing wax with which to expand the hive. Eventually she loses this ability and starts unloading and storing nectar from foraging bees. Then she spends some time guarding the hive and taking play flights. Finally she becomes a forager, the job in which she ends her days after around 800km of flying, when her wings just wear out and she dies.

The worker’s life isn’t always this cut and dried. While workers are genetically programmed to follow this pattern there is some flexibility, too, as circumstances demand. But her lifestyle is largely biologically determined, so that even her body changes to meet the needs of each phase of her career.

What bees are really good at, though, is taking time off. Throughout almost their whole lives, workers spend most of their time resting and patrolling the hive. Often they will spend more than half their time resting. Only in their last days or weeks, when foraging, will they take to their work with the kind of gusto that we attribute to them.

So when we say someone is as busy as a bee, we don’t really mean it. But then we’ve probably got the wrong perspective on things. Individual bees may spend a lot of time relaxing but it’s the hive that matters to bees and other social insects. And the efficiency of their social organisation makes us look like a bunch of feeble amateurs by comparison. There may be a lesson about work-life balance in here.

So: bees, plural, are busy. A bee, on its own, is not.

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