The mysterious internal communication of the beehive

There are fifty thousand bees in the average beehive, equivalent to the number of people in a large national or multi-national organisation. Human internal communicators often struggle to communicate with this number of individuals but the bees seem to do it effortlessly. What are the bees mysterious methods of internal communication that enable them to collaborate together so effectively?  

I’m an internal communicator and an apiarist, the more user friendly term is beekeeper.

As I’ve peered into a beehive during one of my routine colony inspections and watched the bees going about their business, it’s struck me that there are some similarities between how bees communicate in the hive and how humans communicate inside organisations.

There are around fifty thousand bees in the average beehive. That’s equivalent to the number of people in a large national or multi-national organisation. As some internal communicators know, communicating with that number of people in an organisation and getting them all to work towards a common goal or strategy can be challenging.

There can be up to fifty thousand bees in a beehive

What we human internal communicators sometimes struggle to achieve, the bees overcame millions of years ago. A colony of bees is a super-organism. A collective made up of thousands of individuals all working towards a common purpose and with a huge capacity for productivity.

At the end of the summer of 2018, I harvested nearly 30 kilos of honey from a single hive and left the bees with an additional 12 kilos to see them though the winter. If only human beings could be as consistently productive inside the organisations we work in. What are the bee colony’s mysterious methods of internal communication that enable them to work together so effectively in such a collaborative and productive way?  

The queen is the Chief Executive Officer

The queen is the mother of the colony. Every bee in the hive, whether they are a female worker or male drone, is one of her progeny. She is the ultimate leader and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and without her leadership, like a rudderless organisation, the colony would descend into chaos.

As we know, leadership communication inside human organisations is crucial for business success and helping leaders get this right is one of our roles as internal communicators. The queen has no internal communication advisors (well, at least I haven’t seen any during my inspections), but she does exert her leadership and authority through a form of internal communication in the hive.

As she moves through the hive laying her eggs, the queen comes into contact with many thousands of female worker bees and shares pheromones secreted from her mandibular glands. This ‘queen substance’ is the communication which maintains order in the colony. It signals her presence and prevents the workers from laying eggs themselves and producing or rearing a new queen.

After around three years, if she doesn’t die naturally, the queen will be replaced by the colony. As her leadership ability fades and her egg laying capacity diminishes the workers create a new queen from one of her own eggs. As the new queen emerges from her cell, the old queen is executed or simply disappears from the hive.

Human CEOs beware, if you don’t lead and communicate effectively you will be replaced by the workers!

An organisation with no managers

Other than the queen, a bee colony has no managers directing the activity of teams or departments. However, like a line manager, some bees do have a role to literally show others the way.

Line managers effectively communicating inside an organisation enable their team members to understand how what they do contributes to wider organisational strategy. I often think about this as a kind of translation role, because line managers create meaning within their teams. They help each individual understand ‘what this means to me’ when communicating about wider topics and issues. This meaning enables teams to thrive and deliver their objectives.  Line managers need effective communication skills to be able to do this and so do bees if they are to find the food and other resources which the colony needs to thrive.

A foraging worker bee can fly at up to forty miles an hour and may travel three miles or more away from the hive to find nectar and pollen. Once they have found a plentiful source, perhaps a garden in full bloom or a field of flowering crops, they will return to the hive and tell other foragers where to find it.

They do this through performing a ‘dance’. The steps of the dance and the movement of the performing bee communicate to others how to reach the source of food. The dance is performed in the complete darkness of the hive, so it is thought that the directions are communicated by touch between the performer and her audience. Bees have more than one set of eyes and have some which can see polarised light from the sun regardless of whether or not it is obscured by clouds. They navigate to food sources by mainly working out the relative position of the sun, hive and the time taken to travel to their destination. It is this information which is communicated during the dance.

Like a line manager creating meaning to direct the activities of their team, the dancing bee creates meaning for her sisters by directing them to forage in the places which will enable them to be at their most productive.

Clear roles and responsibilities

Just as in a company or organisation, where the humans perform certain roles in accordance with a job description, collaborate in groups and get promotions, bees also have clear roles and responsibilities. In the case of the female worker bees a series of successive roles and responsibilities are linked to their age and they are ‘promoted’ into these during their six week lifespan. 

The female worker bee has many different roles during her six week lifespan

At birth, after emerging from her cell in the comb, the worker bee starts life with the simple task of cleaning the hive. After a few days, she is moved on to feeding the larvae of other developing bees, then attending to the queen who cannot feed or groom herself. Soon, the worker progresses to the important tasks of comb building, storing pollen, honey production, cooling the hive and moving water around. Her final promotions are into the roles of hive guard bee and then forager for the last few weeks of her life.

How these role transitions are communicated is unclear, but just as in a human organisation there is some method of internal communication in play which helps everyone understand who is supposed to be doing what and when.

Bees can count

Finally, I spotted some recent research findings which revealed that bees can count and it amused me that the humble bee could potentially use this ability to measure things. If bees can measure, then I don’t think internal communicators really have any excuse not to!

Martin

If you are looking for new ways to help your line managers or leadership team communicate more effectively inside your organisation, I can help you with that.

For some hints and tips on measuring internal communications, my recent blog ‘Don’t feel bad if you can’t measure everything’ will introduce you to the five ‘O’s to help you measure what matters.

If I’ve intrigued you about bees and being a beekeeper, now (February) is the perfect time to find out more and perhaps become a beekeeper yourself.

The British Beekeeper’s Association can provide you with more information and put you in touch with local beekeeping groups. It’s best to do an introductory course run by experienced beekeepers and some groups also have taster days where you can find out if beekeeping is for you. The world needs more beekeepers (and internal communicators)!

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