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The Wisdom of Bees – Awe and Respect for All Species

Photo by Leandro Fregoni

Fools don’t praise generosity;
Misers don’t go to the world of gods.
The wise rejoice in generosity
And so find happiness in the hereafter.

(Dhammapada 177, translated by Gil Fronsdal)

Alone together

Until 11 years ago, I lived in long-term retreat alone on a mountainside, with a self-built terraced area for my trailer and vegetable garden. I constructed a very simple porch roof to give a little shade on the south side. I erected wooden posts to support a green tarp roof. Over time, I noticed that there was someone living inside a hole in one of these posts. It was an enormous, dark, fuzzy bumblebee. I don’t think it was a wood-boring bee; rather it had found the hole and made its home there.

One of the most fascinating things about living alone in the forest is that you are very far from alone! With all kinds of creatures and unseen beings as companions, the smallest of animals can be kin, a friend. This is how it went with the bee and I, sitting still in meditation or buzzing about busy. Even in bad weather, from inside my trailer I could sense when the bee was nearby. I would intuitively look out of the window and see her coming from or going to her little wooden home. It felt like kinship, both of us alone in our respective caves, doing our own things, yet with a sense of companionship. We are never alone in this world—even if we intend or wish to be.


Waggle dance

If you’ve ever seen bees in a hive, you know that community is at the center of their existence. This is true for so many insect species. Bees collect pollen and, together, produce honey and care for the queen bee, as well as for the health of the hive and the community within. Because animals such as bees communicate in nonverbal, instinctual, and intuitive ways, we tend to think they are less civilized or less complex than human beings. But I would argue that it is the other way around: insects have complex systems of communication and navigation, sourced from their innate biological technology. They can exhibit signs of emotions that we attribute only to humans or primates, such as frustration or anger, grief or loss, contentment and connection. We have yet to scratch the tip of the iceberg of research about animal emotions and psychology, so in my opinion we should assume that they are more or at least as complex as we are, and give them the respect they are due. Bees communicate through sound and movement. Many scientists have dedicated their work to studying them through their expertise, passion, and dedication. One such scientist, James Nieh of the University of California, San Diego, offers the following about his bee subjects:

They can tell each other where to go, how far away to fly, and what distance to go to actually find the food source. Basically, the longer she spends shaking or waggling, the further away the food source is. Another amazing part of this communication system, which hasn’t been studied as clearly, is the fact that bees can actually use sound in some ways. They can generate sounds during the waggle dance, but the primary way they use sound is they sense through vibrations.*

Photo by Boba Jaglicic


Most of us live in human communities, whether big or small, simple or complex. And we somehow assume that our societies, communities, neighborhoods, and families are superior to those of the animal kingdom (or queendom). But when we look at how much strife and conflict we have in our human culture, we might think twice about our sense of superiority. It takes unusual circumstances in the insect realm for much conflict to occur. Things tend to run smoothly as insects relate instinctually and intuitively with one another for the common good, the greater goal of survival and well-being. In other kinds of animal societies, things may get a little bit more complicated, where certain members might be ostracized for various reasons, but we could take to heart the qualities and capacities of the insect, mammal, marine, and bird worlds, and see what kind of role models all kinds of creatures can be for us.


Interspecies generosity

I recently read about a woman who had found a bee that seemed in distress, perhaps hungry or thirsty. She noticed that it only had one wing and so was unable to fly. She carefully gathered the bee into an enclosure and began to offer freshly picked flowers each day. She offered water as well, and the bee lived for about three weeks. During that time, she became quite emotionally intimate with the creature.

Such stories, although very simple, move me deeply. As I see it, a large part of our purpose as human beings is to care for others, no matter what their species or their condition. If we can offer, we will do so. One of my Buddhist lamas says that there is no greater offering, besides our meditation and our prayers that all beings attain enlightenment and are free from suffering. The next greatest offering is of home and shelter to others. However temporary or permanent, she used to ask, how many homes have you offered? For many of us, we may not be able to offer elaborate homes to other human beings. But to animal beings, there are a multitude of opportunities to offer home, shelter, care, food, or warmth. And this is something important for us to do, and not only for our own families, children, pets, or animals close to us. When we are commuting, traveling, or going about our daily lives, if we see an animal in any level of distress or need, we should take the time to offer some comfort, solace, or nourishment. In these ways, we fulfill what it means to be fully human, embodying care and compassion for all beings.

May the lives of all bees and bee colonies thrive and improve—not only to pollinate the world’s food sources, but for their own sovereignty and well-being.

Photo by Esteban Abalsa

* The Bee Dance (Inside Science)

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