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The Voice of God in the Voice of the Bees

by R. S. BEAL, JR

By R. S. BEAL, JR.   Associate Professor of Zoology Arizona State University


(This article was the basis for the 2016 Ladies Retreat Program – each speaker spoke on one of the subjects highlighted.)


That animals can communicate with one another in a crude fashion is familiar to all of us. Dogs “talk” with a short vocabulary of barks and whines. However, until recently it was never suspected that any animal could communicate much more effectively than a dog. We know now that those most remarkable insects, the honeybees, not only “talk,” but have an extensive if unusual vocabulary.

This is but one example of many astounding abilities possessed by bees. The ability of honeybees to distinguish members of their own hive from those of other hives, to see colors beyond the spectrum of light visible to our eyes, to manufacture with engineering precision the wax cells of the honeycomb continue to amaze beekeepers and scientists alike.

Yet for all their amazing skills, few animals are individually as helpless as a honeybee. Each bee, to a surprising degree, is quite dependent upon the others in the hive.

Of course, to some extent all animals find advantages in association with others of their kind. Animals may associate for protection, for more effective food gathering, or for ease in finding suitable mates. At the same time most animals can usually get along fairly successfully if deprived of this association. Not so the honeybee. Not one can live apart from the operation of the hive. If the individuals of a hive were to assert their independence of one another, all would quickly perish.

In this respect the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ bears a wonderful resemblance to a hive of bees.

God has so constituted us who have believed in Jesus Christ that we are wholly dependent upon one another for spiritual power, spiritual growth, spiritual fruit. All of us have been placed in one spiritual Body of which Jesus Christ is the head (I Cor. 12:13; Col. 1:18). As members of this Body we draw upon the spiritual graces given one another by the Holy Spirit. With this mutual help we mature together in spiritual living.

Some Christians seem to believe they can get along very well independently of other Christians. Nevertheless, like honeybees, a Christian’s spiritual life quickly withers when he fails to avail himself of the constant fellowship of believers.

This is why God is so concerned about the unity of Christians and constantly urges believers to walk in harmony and fellowship. In Philippians 1:27 we are commanded to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” In Ephesians 4:3 we are told to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The practical integrity of the Body of Christ is a major obligation of every Christian.

The amazing parallel between the church and a hive of bees is so close it seems almost providential. The God-given principles that hold Christians in this necessary fellowship are the same principles that keep a hive of bees together. To see a living illustration of how to walk in unity, we could do no better than to look into a hive of bees.

Unity Calls for Sacrifice

The stinger of a bee is designed for use against different kinds of enemies. A hive may be invaded by robber bees, various wasps, wax moths, mice and skunks as well as by man. The stinger is a minute hypodermic syringe. Its sharp point easily penetrates the brittle integument of an insect enemy. A relatively small amount of poison kills or repels the insect. After stinging an insect the honeybee can withdraw its stinger and live to sting again. The external skeleton or “skin” of an insect, once it has been broken, offers no resistance to the withdrawal of the stinger.

On the other hand, a much larger injection of poison is needed to repel an invader the size of a mouse or skunk. The point of the stinger is furnished with microscopic barbs. When the stinger is inserted in the soft skin of a mammal, the skin closes about it and the barbs prevent its being withdrawn. As the honeybee flies away, the stinger is torn from her abdomen and with it the poison bulb and gland. The victim tries to pull the stinger out. In doing so he squeezes the bulb, inadvertently forcing the last bit of its poison into the wound. Thus he is hurt several times worse than if the bee withdrew her stinger as does a wasp or hornet.

But the bee is mortally injured. To drive off the invader and protect the colony she has given her life.

No less should the Christian be willing to give his life, if need be, to protect his brethren from spiritual harm. Is not this exactly what God says in I John 3:16? “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”

Not many of us will ever be called upon to die for another. Nevertheless, there are sacrifices required of everyone as we strive to keep the unity of the Spirit. Such a sacrifice as keeping quiet when I am right and the other person wrong. The ego cries out to be recognized. Love, however, thinks of the other soul’s need instead of itself. There is the sacrifice of not buying a new automobile to maintain a proper status when the money might be used to help a missionary struggling to make ends meet and minister to a small company of new believers. There is the sacrifice of foregoing a fishing trip to stay by a class of boys in the Sunday school. There are many others of which each of us ought to be aware. Such sacrifices are often painful. But the Christian who remembers the love of God values the needs of others over himself.

Unity in Labor

As I suppose all readers know, the creature that hatches out of the queen bee’s egg does not look at all like a bee. It is a white, fat, legless, blind, utterly helpless grub. It rests within a cell of the comb, turning and twisting now and then, completely dependent upon the worker bees for its food. After it has attained its full growth it spins a cocoon within the cell, entering a quiescent stage. It emerges from this in a few days as an adult, winged bee. To maintain the developing honeybees, the brood, within a hive requires not only the constant effort of its members but a high degree of organization.

Each honeybee has its own specific duties to meet the demands of this nursery.

The queen bee does nothing but lay eggs. In a single day she may lay fifteen hundred eggs, each carefully positioned in a cell. The total weight of these eggs is about equal to the weight of the queen herself. Obviously she has time for nothing else. The male bees, the drones, are reared for one purpose only, that of fertilizing the queen. The worker bees are sexually undeveloped females who carry out the labor of the hive. At anyone period in a worker’s life she is committed to specific duties. She tends to her duties without complaint, without interfering in the tasks of other bees. The very life of the hive depends upon her faithfulness in her particular task.

Some workers tend the growing larvae. They feed the grubs with a sort of “mother’s milk” produced by glands in the head. Older grubs are fed with pollen and honey.

Others spend their time building the honeycomb, provisioning the cells with honey or pollen and cleaning refuse from the hive. Some bees sit in the entrance of the hive circulating the air through the hive by fanning with their wings. In this way they control the temperature within the hive. There are some that rest or hover outside the entrance as guard bees. They examine all incoming bees with their antennae, ready to repel any impertinent wasps or other honey thieves. Finally there are the scout and forager bees that fly forth to collect loads of pollen and nectar from flowers.

It almost seems as if I Corinthians 12:4 was written about a bee hive: “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.”

The growth of individuals in the Body of Christ is dependent upon the faithfulness of all in the Body. It is not just the minister who has received a call and a gift from God. Every believer has received at least one spiritual gift. It may be the gift of administration. Or it may be teaching, or counseling (“he that exhorteth”), or giving, or ruling, or showing mercy with cheerfulness (Rom. 12:6-8). Whatever it is, it is given by God to be used for the sake of others in the Body.

Indirectly, even my own growth depends upon its exercise. As I minister my gift, others increase in spiritual power. They in turn are better equipped to minister to me. Through their reciprocity I am strengthened. The guard bees in a hive are as important as the foragers. The workers tending to household chores must do their part, or the labor of the foragers would be in vain. But each working at his appointed task, the colony thrives, all are prospered. For me to mature, the Church must mature. The Church matures as each faithfully exercises his gift.

Unity in Sharing

First Corinthians 10:16 says, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” The verse is written to explain how the Lord’s Supper symbolizes the believer’s participation in Christ, both in His death and in His Body. The word “communion” means the share that one has in the blood of Christ and the Body of Christ. Weymouth translates it “joint-participation.” Twelve times it is translated “fellowship” in the Authorized Version. Whatever the translation, it means the use of something in common.

It is easy for believers to give assent to the truth of the Body of Christ. It is difficult, extremely so, to put into practice the sharing that this truth requires.

The sharing is to be of our physical substance. But this is by no means all. It is a fellowship, a sharing of our communication. A sharing of ourselves, not only with those whom we admire, but with the humble brethern whom in the flesh we are inclined to despise.

Bees share in many ways. Most remarkable is the way they share their knowledge, not only by a vocabulary of motions.

When a scout bee has found a new source of food, she returns to the hive and begins a dance on the comb. If the find is any distance, the dance will resemble a figure-8. First the bee moves along the center line, then turns to the right and circles back to the point where she began. She traverses the center line again but this time turns to the left to circle back to the starting point. This completes the figure, which is repeated a number of times. As she goes through these gyrations she is followed by other forager honeybees each imitating her motions. Soon each bee knows the distance of the food from the hive, its directions, its kind.

The wagging communication dance of a scout honeybee

The direction is indicated by the angle of the center run. Of course, the comb surface on which the dance is done stand upright. Inside the hive the bees cannot see the position of the sun. Nevertheless, the direction is given in terms of the sun’s position. An upward run means that the food site lies toward the sun. A downward run indicates the opposite direction. An upward run of 70° to the left of the vertical shows the way to a source of food 70° to the left of the direction of the sun.

As the scout moves along the center line she waggles her abdomen. The number of waggles indicates the distance from the hive. This method of conveying information is so accurate that a bee will travel directly to a food source a mile from the hive.         At a distance of three miles the forager will arrive within a few yards of the food source. All this is done while the original discoverer of the food stays at home for a needed rest!

Space prohibits a description of the vocabulary of sounds used by bees. The important thing for us is that the bee uses its ability to communicate and to share all that it finds for the good of the hive. How much more should Christians communicate with one another, sharing in an infinitely greater fellowship?

It is easy for each of us to get wrapped up in our own small circle of intimates and to share with them our friendship, our pleasures, our affection. But the circle becomes so tightly closed no one can break in, neither the neediest nor the most gifted.       We may smile patronizingly at the visitor in church or even give beneficently to the deacon’s fund for the needy. However, we do not want to share ourselves with just any Christian!

Dr. Richard Elvee remarked, “It is easier to get a Christian to put ten dollars extra in the collection plate than it is to get him to invite a stranger home for a cup of coffee.”

The unity of the Spirit demands more than many of us are willing to give. Giving in to the demand is the only way to the maturation of the Body and of ourselves.

Unity in Submission

At regular intervals the hive becomes overpopulated. A new queen is produced to carry on the reproduction of the hive. The old queen leaves the hive accompanied by half the workers. The swarm flies about the apiary for a short time then settles on a limb of a tree or the eave of a house near their old home, all clustered together. From this point scouts fly out in search of a new homesite. One scout finds a hollow tree. Perhaps another scout discovers a hole leading into an empty attic. Still another may find a cleft in a rock. At this point occurs one of the most astonishing things in the animal world.

As each scout returns he performs a dance on the swarm very much like the communication dance described above. The dances indicate the direction, distance, and (apparently) the suitability of each possible nesting site. Each scout competes with the others in proclaiming the advantages of the place she has found.

Plainly the swarm can occupy only one place. Some of the bees must “change their minds.” This is exactly what happens. A scout that at first invited the bees to her own discovery now dances in favor of the homesite of another scout. Until all the dancers come to the same point of view, the swarm will not move. But, before long, all reach agreement and the swarm moves in a body to the new location.

What goes on in the minute brain of a honeybee, how they “change their minds,” we shall probably never know. The fact is they do. Without coming to unanimity the integrity of the swarm could never be maintained. Their success, their very survival, depends on the willingness of each bee to submit to the others.

How much God’s people need to learn the same lesson. A verse we tend to skip over quickly is Ephesians 5:21: “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.”

This verse does not mean that we are to submit ourselves to another’s bidding to evil. Nor does it mean that we are to submit ourselves to those who subvert the truth of God’s Word, nor to ecclesiastical tyranny, nor to the domination of some power-mad individual who uses a church as the vehicle of his self-aggrandizement. Most of our troubles do not spring from such sources anyway.

What disrupts our unity and defeats us most of the time is purely selfish stubbornness. Perhaps my church votes to support a certain mission project. I find myself opposing it. The reason why I may not be willing to admit, even to myself. But if I were to look within, I would find that it is because no one sought my opinion on the project beforehand. The congregation decides to erect a new addition to the Bible school. I do not like the plans approved by the others. My idea for the arrangement of the rooms is much superior. So I will not give to help pay for something that could have been so much better. Why should I? These are but examples of a common attitude of non-submission. There are few of us who could not find in our own hearts some parallel examples. If we cannot have our way, we will not cooperate.

God’s command, however, is explicit. “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility” (I Pet. 5:5). The need for love and unity is infinitely greater than any need for personal elevation.

Those of us who have believed in Jesus belong to one another just as much as we belong to Christ. We cannot live independently of one another any more than we can live independently of Christ. Like the bees, we must learn to practice the sacrifice, labor, sharing, and submission of love that together we “may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”

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That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10