The Great Work

Photograph by Evelyn Freja / Connected Archives


words by willow defebaugh

Honeybees spend their lives in service of others, a powerful reminder of the value of community and working for a larger purpose.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?

Martin Luther King Jr.

I’m laying in a park with solid earth beneath my belly and it feels good. It feels good to be here, knowing that the only thing expected of me today is my favorite thing: writing to you. That feeling is present, the most precious one, that I’m exactly where I ought to be—doing what I ought to be. Around me, life in the city hums with purpose: not only the business of people, but with blooming flowers and bees buzzing between. And it is on them that my attention hovers.


For beings with brains the size of sesame seeds, honeybees—a group of insects in the family Apidae that includes all bees that make honey—are bewilderingly complex. They are highly social and collaborative creatures, living in hives that function at once as a mass of singular bees and a decentralized superorganism. As Thomas Seeley writes in Honeybee Democracy, “A colony of honeybees is, then, far more than an aggregation of individuals. It is a composite being that functions as an integrated whole.”


Within a hive, each honeybee serves a purpose. They are divided into three roles: the queen, the drones, and the workers. The queen’s primary function is to create the next generation of bees. In addition to using hormones to direct behavior within the hive, she possesses the power to determine the sex of each offspring, which in turn dictates the role it will play. But it’s not exactly a monarchy; queens are chosen by workers. When one dies, they select another female to feed excessive amounts of royal jelly, which allows her to grow into the next fertile queen.


Drones are male honeybees. They make up just 10% of a hive’s population and spend the majority of their lives feasting on honey until the queen is ready to mate. When she is, she embarks on a flight and the drones race to mate with her midair. The twenty or so that succeed, fall to their deaths after mating, their calling having been answered. The queen then begins laying eggs—over a thousand per day—the majority of which will give way to female worker bees, the only bees most of us ever actually see.


Worker bees provide a host of services that shift and evolve over the course of their life cycles. After three weeks of being a larva, the adult worker bee’s hormones begin directing her to fulfill various roles. The first she embarks upon is cleaning and maintaining the hive’s cells, which store not only larvae but also food. Her next role is to feed the new generation. Her third and final task is the most dangerous: foraging for food outside, turning pollen into honey. After a month of work, when workers sense their days nearing an end, they leave for good so that their bodies do not become a burden for other members of the hive—the ultimate sacrifice.


The behavior of bees is, in many ways, in direct opposition to the anti-work sentiment that has dominated much of the cultural conversation these past few years. Which I share in; it took the world coming to a standstill for many of us to realize how deeply we had been indoctrinated into disaster capitalism’s directive to work until you die, for your own goals, at the expense of all else. However, I’m also wary of any binary. I don’t think work itself is the problem—especially work in service of a higher good—but rather the exploitative systems many are working in.


I believe that there is much we can learn from honeybees, these creatures that devote themselves so fully to both following their individual callings as well as serving the larger community. Is that not what allows for any hive to thrive? The language we use to describe their activity is exceedingly work-centric, but I wonder if they see it that way. Work itself is a human construct. Perhaps they view their lives as at once their own and something to be spent in service of a cause much bigger than themselves—full of purpose and yet dripping with sweetness.

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