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As collaborative and beautifully orchestrated as a colony of bees!

I have been dwelling on similes and collective nouns....

Fascinated as I am with etymology, I would love to know who first conceived the idea of  ‘As busy as a bee’….’as naked as a jaybird’… (and indeed 'as drunk as a skunk’...have you ever seen a drunk skunk?)  Some of these attributes are easier to imagine than others. Some are designed to express admiration for a particular trait in human character, others to admonish. Either way, I can’t help thinking that they may be somewhat of a simplification… Take bees for example. I have just visited my own hive~ if this were not digital, you would smell the beautiful aroma or freshly scratched propolis, feel the smudge of wax on the keyboard, (hear the pound of my heart as I sit and regulate, relieved not to have squashed any today!) and having seen what I have seen, in observing the intricacies of 10,000 bees going about their ‘bzzzy-ness’, the organisation of a colony, the impressive speed of honey production and the detail of the smallest creature wandering across your hand you might indeed envision with me a whole range of possible similes including…​​

As gentle as a bee

  • As beautiful as a bee

  • As exacting as a bee

  • As purposeful and dedicated as a bee

  • As collaborative as a bee

  • As focused as a bee

  • As organised as a bee

  • As thrill-seeking as a bee (yes, research has show some of them to enjoy the chase...don’t ask me how!)

  • As vicious as a bee (ask anyone who has been stung!)

...And then there are collective nouns… A swarm of bees, a crash of rhinoceroses, a murder of crows! (more on this one next time!)

These nouns, first listed in the Book of St Albans, c. 1486 (also known as the book of hunting, hawking and heraldry, thus giving a clue to the origins of such terms!) also in some way provide a metaphor for characteristics of humans, but again to my mind perhaps too easy and somewhat limiting.  Bees swarm when there is a problem. Think about it. When do you feel the need to move home? When your family has outgrown the one you are in? When you have fallen out with your house mates? When there is a significant problem with the house? To move to a better area with better facilities? Its generally the same for bees. A new queen (forcing the old one out if she’s not murdered within!), overcrowding, problems with the hive etc etc. You get my point. Its a fairly stressful thing for bees to do (as a very novice beekeeper, I can vouch for both the wonder, but also the stress in watching it too!)  Is it fair to describe bees collectively by a behaviour that is driven by crisis? It is said that moving house is one of the most stressful things for us too... How do you behave at your most stressed? For me, its not good!  As humans, we have a desire to categorise in order to judge, in order to manage, to feel better about ourselves perhaps. We create both helpful and unhelpful narratives about people, circumstances, life…’what can you expect, she’s an accountant’…’a teacher and she can’t spell’…’Look at that car, I bet I know what he’s like’ All rooted in the drive for a serotonin hit (another blog, another time..). 

I couldn't help but reflect on this, when sat in the car recently at a recycling site (I know, my August activities Rock!) noticing how busy it seemed, each individual recycler was going about their waste disposal with a purposeful stance seemingly oblivious to everyone else. It was a little like version of a Where's Wally?book for me, noting the chap who was recycling what seemed like a whole tree without bags or sufficient arms to enclose the greenery and the lady who seemed to have single-handedly acquired a metal collection that any fabricator would be envious of, and the shifty looking young man with his black bags of unidentified un-recyclables dodging the Hi-vis officials along the way. It struck me that at a glance, this looked like collective behaviour. These folk were indeed 'busy as bees', but from the privileged position of watcher (It was hubby, not I that was dutifully productive) so many individual qualities loomed forth. The same is true of stations, supermarkets, festivals, anywhere where large gatherings of people are found and judged perhaps as a collective. People watching, taking the time to stand and stare, to be curious, reveals details.

Thus, as helpful as both simile and collective nouns are for alliteration (a beautiful thing!) for poetry and for understanding certain characteristics of the natural world, this is my campaign to not merely settle with such descriptors, in particular the more deprecating ones, but to remain curious, to stop and stare and ponder on,  nature and the creatures and living things within it…just as we (or maybe just me!) should about one another perhaps!

nb...issues with my blog means that although this was published in September, it was actually written a month ago! Now, the bees have mostly retreated to the collective warmth of their diminished hive.


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