What Do the Israelites and Honeybees Have in Common?
This week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha (Go forth), triggered my imagination about similarities between the Israelite spies and honeybees. Just as the Israelite spies, who explore what it will take to make Canaan – the land God had promised them – their new home, honeybee “scouts” also explore the best place for a new colony to “swarm,” the process by which the bees generate a new home.
In the parashah, we learn about the Israelites, who, after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, were making their way to the land of Canaan. When they were near Canaan, God directed Moses to send 12 spies, one leader from each of the 12 tribes, to assess whether the soil was rich enough to grow food and beautiful fruit, and whether the Israelites could conquer the Canaanites. Could the Israelites grow food and beautiful fruit? Could they conquer the Canaanites and take over the land? After wandering in the desert for 40 years, could they settle down and live peacefully and sustainably for generations to come?
Forty days later, the spies returned. Carrying lush food and fruits from Canaan, they noted the land was indeed rich and fruitful. However, ten of the 12 spies were doubters about the Israelites’ ability to vanquish the Canaanites. Morale among the Israelites plummeted, some crying: “We should have stayed in Egypt!”
Two spies, Joshua and Caleb, concurred the land was rich enough to grow food. But unlike the other spies, Joshua and Caleb argued that the Israelites absolutely could conquer the Canaanites. God punished the doubters. After 40 years, the 10 spies and their generation were dead. God commanded Joshua and Caleb to lead the next generation of Israelites into Canaan, where they overtook the inhabitants and settled there. The rest is history, so to speak.
Honeybees also have times they look for new homes that have everything they need to feed and grow a new colony: a deep tree cavity, sunlight, shade, water sources, and plentiful plants to provide pollen and nectar. At these times, an existing colony in a honeybee hive will “swarm,” meaning the queen honeybee and about half her existing bee colony leave their original hive and form a cluster on a tree branch (or other safe location). They wait there temporarily while “scout” bees instinctively fan out in many directions in search of a possible new home that meets the necessary criteria.
When the scouts return, they report their findings to the swarm, communicating through waggle dances, using different body movements to inform the colony about direction and distance of places in which they believe the colony can safely continue to survive, grow, and thrive. The swarm colony democratically decides which location is best. In this way, honeybees produce a new colony even as the original colony makes a new queen bee and continues to thrive.
As we’ve seen, superficially, both the Israelites and a new colony of honey bees need places to live that offer food, water, and safety, as well as room to grow and thrive. To find such places both appoint members to conduct reconnaissance missions, spying and scouting before reporting back so decisions can be made.
On a deeper level, honeybees and humans have a symbiotic relationship without which sustainability of our land and food supply suffer. Both count on the land, plants, and each other for survival.
Honeybees pollinate farmers’ crops and native plants (30% or one out of every three bites of food we eat), ensuring plentiful food supplies for themselves and for humans. Like humans, honeybees need a varied diet of pollen (protein) and nectar (carbohydrate) to stay healthy. When farmers grow only one type of crop for thousands of acres (monoculture), honeybees pollinate those crops, but the pollen is not varied enough to meet the honeybees’ need for the various proteins and carbohydrates required for good health. Farmers’ use of pesticides further threatens the wellbeing of plants, insects, and humans.
As during the time of the ancient Israelites, the earth and its current inhabitants survive and thrive only when we work together with honeybees and other insects to keep our food supply safe and sustainable.