words by ruth h. hopkins
photographs by maisie cousins
In the digital age, humanity’s behavior emulates a hive as never before: worker bees buzzing around the world, connected by common causes, survival resting on each other’s shoulders. As Ruth H. Hopkins writes, that could be our saving grace—or our downfall.
Since before Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and even Archimedes, Indigenous people have been keen scientific observers of the natural world. For thousands of years, we have documented astronomical events in the heavens above, noted and predicted weather patterns and the changing of the seasons, studied plant medicine and animal behavior, explored our environment, and posited hypotheses.
One of the ways my ancestors discovered medicine was by following bears. They watched the bears so closely that they were able to decipher what ailments the large mammals were afflicted with and, in turn, what roots they ingested to cure themselves.
My ancestors knew the creatures that inhabited their ecosystem so well that they were able to work cooperatively with them, exchanging seeds and beans with field mice to ensure their mutual survival during harsh winters.
Another type of organism that held my Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota Sioux) ancestors’ fascination were insects. So much so, that one of our deities, Iktomi (the Trickster), often took the form of a spider. While modern scientists would say spiders are technically arachnids, my Native Nation developed its own classification system. And unlike today’s mainstream society, we didn’t demonize insects. We understood that they played a necessary role.
When observing and learning from other beings, it’s important to respect their authority. You see, also unlike Western civilization, we do not view our relationships with other living creatures as a hierarchy in which we are top dog. Nothing—especially human life—is more important or essential than anything else. Everything is a circle. It is the Sacred Hoop of Life.
Once we understand that we are on a level playing field with every other organism that calls this planet home, it becomes a lot easier to grasp our commonalities.
Bees also served as teachers for my people. We recognized that they were critical to all life because they were the primary pollinators of our food and medicines. Honeybees are not native to North America, but there were over 4,000 other species of bees present on the continent during pre-colonial times.
Have you ever examined a beehive? I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen one, but have you ever really taken the time to witness the exhaustive inner workings of it? Bumblebees, which are native to the US, aren’t quite as organized as honeybees; nonetheless, their hives are complex. They’re tiny, intricate, matriarchal societies dependent on a queen for survival, yet that same queen is at the behest of her worker bees who build and feed the hive and care for her young.
Nothing—especially human life—is more important or essential than anything else. Everything is a circle. It is the Sacred Hoop of Life.
Hives are a testament to unity and what can grow when like-minded beings come together as one under a common goal. They’re so dedicated that a single bee is willing to give its life and sacrifice itself for the good of the whole.
Never before has the human race mirrored the behavior of a hive in the way it does now, in the digital age. Big data has become big business. Thanks to the internet, humanity is able to disseminate information at the speed of light all over the globe and organize at an unprecedented level.
Social media platforms have risen to prominence as vital tools that push social justice and environmental movements to new heights. Protests are coordinated through Facebook, and users have become independent journalists by documenting newsworthy events through handheld smartphones via Twitter or Instagram. The mainstream media now incorporates social media posts in its programming. Cries for reform are condensed and amplified as millions of accounts boost stories of injustice—and it all happens in the blink of an eye.
Have no doubt, the Digital Hive has tremendous power. Millions of voices speaking in unison cannot be ignored, and together, they can create change.
Hives are a testament to unity and what can grow when like-minded beings come together as one under a common goal.
I have witnessed this for myself. In 2016, an elder named LaDonna Brave Bull Allard put out a call through social media, asking for help. The Dakota Access Pipeline was being built through Lakota treaty lands on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where she lived. Its construction would desecrate ancestral burial sites and tunnel under the main source of freshwater for the tribe and thousands of others who live downstream, without the consent of the Lakota People. They were making my birthplace, the land of Sitting Bull, a sacrifice zone.
She told people to come—and wow, did they ever. Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life, colors, creeds, and nationalities showed up on the shores of the Missouri River to stand with us against Big Oil. Camp raids, dog attacks, and acts of extreme police brutality were broadcast all over social media. Our message reached every corner of the world and the very pinnacle of government. It pushed former President Obama to act in our favor and shut down the pipeline. Sadly, it would be revived by former President Trump. We were not surprised. The battle continues.
Even so, Standing Rock stands as a prime example of the positive power of the Hive: Humanity stood together in common cause for the good of all.
There are substantial differences between bees and humans, however. Aside from the obvious, one major difference is in the motivations and consequences of hive behavior. While the evolutionary success of hives produces favorable results for bees, hive behavior in humans can potentially lead us down some very negative, dangerous paths that hurt individuals and humanity as a whole.
Not all information is good information. While social media has the ability to spread and collect data at an incredible rate, it can also give lies and unfounded conspiracy theories unwarranted credibility and a toxic foothold in fertile minds unable or unwilling to discern the truth. Social media algorithms group us together with others who express similar politics and opinions. This may help us find one another, but we’ve also seen that this tends to sow division, increase polarization, and reward extremism.
The dark side of the Digital Hive revealed itself in recent years in QAnon, a bizarre MAGA cult built on the deification of Donald Trump. It culminated in the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, after delusional followers attempted to impede members of Congress and the vice president from verifying the results of a legitimate national election of which President Biden was the victor. Five people died as a result of the domestic terrorist attack. At the time of writing, nearly a month later, the National Guard occupies the Capitol as threats continue to pour in.
If we are to survive, humanity must learn loyalty and unity from the bees. The Hive alone is not enough. Like them, we must see one another as relatives joined together in truth, in a singular cause for the greater good of all, regardless of complexion, economic status, politics, or geography. Evil doers who destroy the whole must be stopped.
Lastly, common sense dictates that we protect our teachers. As we learn from bees, we must put in the work needed to conserve them. Their very existence demands it, and our survival is directly tied to theirs. We cannot live without them.
In the face of the climate crisis, one thing is clear: we will only get to an ecologically just future by way of working together. If humankind is to heal its relationship to the rest of creation, it must restore harmony—which cannot exist without collaboration. And what could be more emblematic of holism and harmony than a hive?