What bees can teach a design business

Bees are awesome

Jacqui Pennington is Client Partner at ELSE and outside of work, she loves keeping bees. Bees (specifically honeybees, Apis MelliferaI) are fascinating creatures and we can learn so much from them. Here at ELSE, we have six attentions that we bring into our work. Jacqui shares share what we can learn from the bees to help us, specifically, to be more ‘purposeful’ and ‘effective’ (two of ELSE’s ‘attentions’) in our day-to-day working lives.

Why bees?

Just before lockdown, my neighbour (who’s in her 80’s) contacted my husband and I because she needed someone to look after her hives of bees. I knew nothing about bees at the time but thought a new hobby could be interesting (and wanted to help my neighbour out). So, I contacted my local beekeeper’s association and embarked on some of their training. It took approximately 15 minutes for me to become COMPLETELY hooked on bees.

Since then, I’ve grown from looking after two hives to looking after five (this is a common problem for the beekeeper – an ever increasing number of hives!) and have developed not only an obsession with these incredible creatures, but also a general appreciation of the fascinating world of insects (as a serious arachnophobe, this is a biggie for me!).

Bees are experts in simple, elegant and effective design

Bees produce three things:

  1. Propolis: a kind of cement bees use to build and seal their hive, which helps them keep it at a consistent temperature.
  2. Honey: for every 1lb of honey, bees must visit around 454 flowers and fly for around 55,000 miles (which is 2.2 times around the earth).
  3. Wax: bees produce the honeycomb from wax, which is a perfect hexagon shape (see YouTube https://youtu.be/thOifuHs6eY for a good explanation of why hexagons are the bestagons – TLDR; it is the most efficient and effective for using the minimal amount of wax, with the maximum strength and maximum storage).

The latter, the honeycomb, is an incredible structure. It never fails to amaze me when you see these uniform hexagons which they create; each one is perfect. Bees use the honeycomb in several different ways:

  • To store pollen (which they use as protein to feed to babies).
  • To store food (i.e. honey), which they create from nectar by regurgitating from their honey stomach and passing from bee to bee.
  • For the queen to lay eggs into, which hatch into larva and eventually grow into new bees.
  • A way of communicating by telling the queen which kind of egg to lay.

The honeycomb is created in strips, which are spaced apart in a consistent distance, which we call ‘bee space’ – yes, the bees are clever enough to create their honeycomb structures allowing just enough space for each bee to pass through. As beekeepers, if we don’t allow them this much space, they won’t thrive. If we give them too much space, they will just build it up to their ideal.

The bees will vibrate inside the hive when it’s cold to keep the hive warm in the winter and will flap their wings outside the hive to flow air through the hive to keep it cool in the summer.

What can we learn from this?

The simplest designs are often the most effective.

Bees use team work to achieve their single-minded purpose: survival of the colony

There are three kinds of bees in a hive:

  1. Female worker bee
  2. Male drone bee
  3. Female queen bee

Guess who is responsible for nursing new bees?

The worker bees.

Who do you think is responsible for guarding the hive?

No, not the drones (although they look like they’d make good bouncers), again – it’s the worker bees.

And who decides when the queen is ready for retirement?

Yes, you guessed it, the worker bees.

The worker bees carry out most of the tasks in the hive. The queen submits pheromones to keep the hive together and lays eggs. The drones are there purely to mate with a queen from a different hive (which is done in flight – no easy task). Although many male beekeepers I know refuse to believe they don’t have another role…. (apparently lots of drones is the sign of a healthy hive).

Finally, what happens to the Drones at the end of the summer season?

Do they find a queen to mate with?

Hibernate for the winter?

No… the worker bees chew their wings off and ruthlessly throw them out of the hive to starve to death because they are surplus to requirements. Bees are the ultimate in efficiency.

Bees have clear roles and responsibilities

Bees have clear roles and responsibilities, all of which are essential to the success of the colony, from the different kinds of bees (queen/drone/worker) to the different worker roles (nursing/guard/scout and many more).

The queen bee demonstrates servant leadership – she serves the colony by ensuring its future survival, she doesn’t lead by laying down rules.

Jaqui Pennington beekeeper

The worker bees carry out several different roles and they gradually progress through the different roles as they develop. There is no ego; if a job needs to be done, they just do it.

It’s usually assumed that the queen is in charge, but the workers decide when a new queen is needed. The queen lays the eggs, but the workers decide where and what (whether male or female).

Responsibility is devolved to each of the bee specialisms. All of the bees have the same clear purpose which is understood by all – success of the hive. They all drive towards this purpose, even sacrificing themselves for the safety of the hive. Reproduction is at a team level – not just by the queen. The colony reproduces through swarming as a super organism. While this works well for bees, to be clear, I am not suggesting we should try this at a team level…..

The individual matters – worker bees feed new bees, queens and drones. If a bee is harmed or needs her help, her sisters will rush to her aid.

What can we learn from this?

Clearly communicate your single-minded purpose so everyone is aiming for the same goal and achieve success through servant leadership and teamwork

Bees thrive through effective and honest communication

Another question for you – how do scout bees communicate what they’ve found?

a) Through their antenna; b) Through the power of dance; c) Through their buzz.

Bees, being the awesome creatures they are, use the power of dance to communicate, specifically, the ‘waggle dance’. Scout bees use the waggle dance to describe to their fellow worker bees where they have found a water source, a new hive or flowers for pollen and nectar. Their dance is so accurate it even considers the angle of the sun.

Pheromones are another strong mode of communication between bees. The queen submits one which plays several roles from attracting the bees to cluster around the queen during swarming, attracting drones from other hives to mate with her and to get the other bees to clean and feed her as she is unable to do so herself. She uses this pheromone to regulate worker bee behaviours in the hive, such as defending the hive, feeding the brood, cleaning and foraging. Her pheromone also tells the worker bees when she is no longer a healthy queen and needs to be supersedured (i.e. replaced by a new queen).

What can we learn from this?

Clear and effective communication keeps teams together.

An ELSEr Story

Meet Jacqui, our Client Partner.

Read more