A Lesson in Management Directly from the Bees!

A Lesson in Management Directly from the Bees!


Subtext: By giving some, you get a LOT more back!



If the bees were to become extinct, the humanity will soon follow!—Einstein


There has been much news about the bees and their survival these days. Just yesterday I read a report that yet three more bee species have now become extinct, with seven just added to the endangered list in the US, which has 4,000 species in existence (of total 17,500 world wide). Americans consume about 285 million pounds of honey each year (that is almost a pound per person). On top of that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honeybees pollinate 80 percent of the country’s insect crops—meaning bees pollinate over $20 billion worth of crops each year.

Why are the bees so much in focus suddenly? It is because how we, as humans, treat them and how we are writing our own obituary in the process. Because of the declining bee population, which is critical to crops and agriculture, the bee industry is now on a path to exploit what it can to maximize its resources—a patently selfish and short-sighted approach—and in the process has put the entire future of how agriculture is managed at risk.

So, why is this an object lesson in corporate management? Read on!

The decline in wild bees has increased the value of pollination by commercially managed hives of honeybees. Industrial beekeepers manage large bee colonies and move them in trucks to where they are needed. These beekeepers then let these colonies stay with a particular crop for months at a time to pollinate and then they move to another location for another crop. What this operation has done to the bees is that they are fed on just one type of pollen throughout this entire period without offering them any variety of pollen on which they thrive, which makes them considerably less productive and more stressed.

How would you feel if you are fed just one food type throughout a day for days on end, and then moved to another food source without giving you the variety that your body needs? Also, suddenly changing one food type to another after being on one for months creates its own stress and adjustment problems. Or, how would you feel if just did one task in your job and one task only, day in and day out?

The second factor that is stressing out the bees is that their food source—honey and pollen—is central to their survival. During the winter season, when their food source becomes scarce because of hibernating plants and trees, if the honey is taken out of the beehive they literally starve to death. On the other hand if they are provided with enough honey to survive the winter they produce much more honey during the season, both because they are healthier and because now there are more of them doing their jobs.

When bees change jobs on their own, they do because their brain chemistry changes. Another interesting fact about bees is that their colonies are strictly designed to harness the division of labor. Each type does only a particular job; bees are hardwired to do only certain jobs. Scout bees, which search for new sources of food, are wired for adventure. Soldier bees, discovered in 2012, work as security guards their whole life protecting the hive. One percent of all middle-aged bees become undertakers—a genetic brain pattern compels them to remove dead bees from the hive. But most amazingly, regular honeybees—which perform multiple jobs in their lifetime—will change their brain chemistry before taking up a new gig. However, bees change jobs on their own; they cannot be forced to change jobs without the change happening in their brain chemistry.

These are just few of the factors that have caused bees to become a topic of attention in the recent few years. Some farmers have recognized this and have created farmlands to specifically help bees thrive by giving them what they naturally need. One large farmer in Oregon has devoted nearly 500 acres to help the bee population to monitor their colonies. He has planted a rich variety of plants, flowers, and trees based on the research that told him what the bees needed most to thrive. Having this rich variety of pollen has helped the colonies to multiply its honey production many fold. In addition not taking too much honey from the hives by letting them have enough food source during the winter months has resulted in much healthier bees, which produce much more honey during the season!

So, what are the lessons in management we can learn from how bees are being managed and should be managed if we, as humanity, were to survive? Here is my take:

  1. Understand that each person is wired differently and they have needs that make them optimally effective. Forcing people to do jobs that they are not good at or giving them monotonous tasks day in and day out can not only be stultifying, but also stressful. Giving people a rich variety to tasks that they are good at or are interested in (with some training and mentoring) can create a productive workforce (as you are reading this imaging the plight of the labor force at China’s Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer and the reasons for its high suicide rate).
  2. When changing jobs or careers your brain needs to be rewired. Scout bees change their brain chemistry to become security guards before they assign themselves to guarding the hive. So, if a person needs a change of pace or change in their engagement make sure that the management of a company has a mechanism to recognize this, encourage the change, and has the resources to help the person through the transition. When bees were given this variety (of nourishment) their output multiplied many fold.
  3. You can get back a lot more by giving what is needed, not by holding back. The bees in this Oregon farmer’s experiment became many times more productive, lived longer, and produced much better honey than their counterparts is an object lesson in how we can make everyone more productive and happy by giving them what they naturally need to thrive, and not by holding back on them. Let your discretion be your guide in how you give freedom and latitude to your employees. A little bit of discretion gets you much greater commitment from your employees.
  4. Your employees will come through for you just as bees do during the summer season. During the chillier months of winter bees can last up to nine months. But, if you remove their source of food during these months—depriving them of their honey—they die before they can get to work in the summer. If you take care of them during the lean months by taking out only the honey for them to survive, they last only about six weeks during the summer months; they literally work themselves to death during these few summer months producing a great deal of output. But, for this to happen you must give them the resources to survive the cold months.
  5. When aging bees do jobs usually reserved for younger members, their brain stops aging. In fact, their brain ages in reverse. (Imagine if riding a tricycle didn’t just make you feel young—it actually made your brain tick like theirs!).  Scientists believe that this discovery can help us slow the onset of dementia. The management lesson here is that engaging older workers and giving them “young”work that energizes them and gives them a purpose changes their outlook. How many stories have you read about people dropping dead the same week that they retired? In the case of one bus driver in Los Angeles, who drove for the city until he was 100 years old, dropped dead the same week he retired!

I am sure that there are many more such lessons that we can learn from the bees, but these few should awaken us to rethink how we can change from what we already know about them.

Good luck!

Credit: Some material for this blog was adapted from an article published by Mental Floss.

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