Kathleen M. Pike, PhD


The Appius melliferous, commonly known as the honeybee, has been disappearing in recent years. Reports of colony collapse disorder have set off alarms around the globe, prompting a movement in backyard beekeeping. After years of watching and wishing, I became a beekeeper this spring with the arrival of two hives in April. Wow, or, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “the keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”

What I didn’t know when I donned my beekeeping garb for the first time was that I was in for an astounding public health tutorial.

1. What’s all the buzz about? More than 11,400 wing strokes per minute generate the honeybee’s distinctive buzzing sound. Lifting the lid of the hive, the hum is simply spellbinding. Sixty thousand bees – one colony – in less than one cubic meter. One of my first lessons as a beekeeper was that it is impossible to study the behavior of a single bee without its colony. Inextricably linked, the bee performs essential work for the greater good of the colony. And conversely, a bee cannot survive without the colony. If it were truly “independent,” it would die. As I ponder life in the US where autonomy and independence are pursued with a vengeance, I think we are much more interconnected than we generally realize. And I am reminded that as we work to advance our understanding of mental health and illness, our models need to more fully capture both the individual and collective factors – for like the bees, they are inextricably linked.

2. Busy bees. A healthy hive is the colony’s version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with tens of thousands of bees engrossed in performing their part. Worker bees, drones, and, of course, the queen, comprise a workforce devoted to pollinating thousands of acres of flowering plants, maintaining the hive and producing honey. When all is well, the queen spends her days laying eggs, foragers scout up to five miles for pollen and nectar, nursing bees feed the larvae, others clean the comb, guards protect the entrance, and there are even undertakers whose job it is to remove the dead from the hive. All in a day’s work. Like the bees, we know that meaningful work is positively correlated with an individual’s mental health. Conversely, communities plagued by unemployment are also plagued by mental health problems. It is encouraging and exciting to witness the growing number of programs connecting economic development and work re-entry programs with mental health.

3. The waggle dance, also known as the dance of the honeybee, is part of the colony’s sophisticated and complex communication system. After searching for food, forgers return to the hive and dance for their mates, swinging their thorax just so to report on their findings. The vigor of the waggle, the number of times it’s repeated, the direction of the dance, and the sound the bee makes collectively communicate the particulars. The details of the dance are precise enough to pinpoint nectar over six kilometers away. If only we humans could communicate so clearly and effectively. Impaired communication skills and abilities are at the core of a myriad of mental illnesses and brain disorders – from autism to schizophrenia to dementia, and for all of us communication can be challenging at times. The artful dance of the honeybee offers some pointers in terms of considering carefully our audience and our messaging to improve communications.

4. Stewardship. With the exception of the queen, bees only live 40-60 days. At the beginning of the summer, the newly hatched larvae are the beneficiaries of the bees of yore who left pollen and honey reserves anticipating the arrival of the next generation. Within days of hatching, the new bees (newbies) immediately take up where their predecessors left off. During their six to eight-week lifespan, they fly the equivalent of 1.5 times the circumference of the earth and produce an average of 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. It’s not for them but rather for the next generation. And so it goes. As we consider some of our greatest social and environmental worries today, we might learn a thing or two about stewardship from the honeybees.

5. The Queen Bee and her brood. Each hive has one queen. She is the heart and soul of the colony. But hers is not a royal life of leisure. She is entirely and solely responsible for laying all the eggs in the hive – 1500 or more per day. She is totally incapable of caring for her own basic needs, with attendants who feed and groom her. And she leaves the hive only once in her lifetime – to mate with as many drones as possible (well at least she has that going for her). The queen is but one member of the colony, and the health of the hive depends not only on her leadership, but also on effective engagement of all the players in the orchestra. The bees are a brilliant illustration of the role of community cohesion in population health, and we will be well served to further understand how collectivist cultures that prioritize belonging and group harmony are good for our mental health and actually buffer genetic tendency to depression.

Honey. Liquid gold. Nectar of the gods. This is the byproduct of the honeybees who model for us cooperation, hard work, communication and stewardship. There is something magical about harvesting the 60-80 lbs of honey that is typical production for a strong colony each year. Takeaway for mental health? When individual and population health are in balance, life is sweeter for all.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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