community

What We Can Learn From The Honey Bees

what we can learn from the honey bees
This post was written for Numi Organic Tea and originally appeared on the Numi Tea Garden blog.

Honey bees. Some people love them and others fear them, but there's no denying that they're an important part of our lives. Honey bees, after all, make a deliciously sweet elixir that humans have harvested for thousands of years. In fact, some scientists believe that our hominid ancestors may have been able to evolve larger brains due in part to their intake of calorie-packed, easily digestible honey.

Not to mention that, as pollinators, they're responsible - along with their fellow pollinating insects - for pollinating more than a hundred standard food crops and flowers, including celery, cashews, onions, potatoes, watermelon, and tangerines. Our diet would be remarkably less varied without the hard work of honey bees and their ilk.

But honey bees are beloved beyond the tasks we humans benefit from. Since childhood, I've enjoyed sitting outside and observing bees as they dart precisely from flower to flower. They're a sign of spring - of warmer, brighter days - that lift people's moods. And despite a socially engrained fear of their stingers, your chances of getting stung by these mostly docile insects is only 6 million to one, so it's safe in most cases (unless you're severely allergic) to get up close and marvel at their skill.



The multifold function and pleasure of living alongside bees also shows itself in symbols. Hindus, and ancient Egyptians and Celts associated the bee with love, royalty, and hidden wisdom. And in the Biblical text, the freed Hebrew slaves refer to the promised land as "Land of Milk and Honey," i.e. a land of plenty.

So, when I suggest that we can learn something from the bees, I follow in a long line of people enraptured by these industrious insects.

What We Can Learn from The Honey Bees

1. No [bee] is an island

Bees are fully imbued with the skill to go about their tasks in relative independence, but they know it's best to work in a team. Bees switch jobs throughout their lifetime, as needed, to ensure that the hive runs efficiently. Before they become foragers in the last 2-3 weeks of their lives, they tend to the hive, working as nursemaids, caretakers, cleaners, honeycomb builders, nectar ripeners, pollen packers, and hive repairers. When they are older, they will begin the public work of collecting water, pollen, nectar, and propolis (the thick wax that holds the hive together), then working with the house bees to appropriately store and utilize their goods.

2. Always give 100%

The relationship between honey bees is not a 50/50 partnership or a competition. If a job needs to be done, any available bee will jump on it. This makes their community both incredibly efficient and harmonious in a way rarely seen in human society.

In some cases, if the Queen becomes ill or dies, a worker bee will even lay eggs to protect the genetic legacy of the colony. Though she cannot fertilize the egg, a male drone will be created through the process of parthenogenesis. The colony will still die out - after all, it needs female worker bees to thrive - but the drones may go out and mate with other colonies' Queens, and this means that the health of the larger bee community is maintained even as the local hive dies.

3. Leave a legacy

Did you know that bees and flowers communicate with one another? Researchers at the University of Bristol found that not only could bees "read" the negative charge of plants, the bees' relative positive charge (acquired while flying through the air) reacted with the electrical field of the plants and changed their charge for several minutes after they concluded their nectar and pollen collecting. Bees flying by effected plants would then be able to avoid them until the flower regenerated its resources.

In the words of Professor Daniel Robert: "the last thing a flower wants is to attract a bee and then fail to provide nectar; a lesson in honest advertising since bees are good learners and would soon lose interest in such unrewarding flower."

4. Have each other's back

If a bee is itchy, another bee won't hesitate to jump on her back and find the source, according to Jacqueline Freeman, author of Song of Increase. And a worker bee in need of grooming will dance to signal her need for assistance until a fellow worker comes to her aid.

In addition to basic maintenance, worker bees do not hesitate to share information about the best plants using a "waggle dance" to give precise directions. Bees, through complex and patient communication, work together to ensure that their colony thrives.


Honey bees provide a model for precise, compassionate community that can be achieved only through attentiveness, communication, and hard work. Though it can be difficult when our communities and work places don't seem fair, if we absorb these lessons as individuals, we can foster them in others, and maybe someday soon we'll figure out that dynamic and peaceful community is as simple as learning from the honey bees.

Inward and Outward: A Pre-Inauguration Reflection


I wrote this piece for the Numi Organic Tea blog as a Resolutions Post, but I thought it was appropriate to post here, on the eve of the Inauguration. Though it's always been important to be vigilant protectors and defenders of justice, the rate at which things could take a turn for the worse feel overwhelming. This post represents my first step, but the work isn't done.

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As I sit here staring at this bright, blank page before me, I consider what it looks like to start fresh.

In life, we don't often get a blank page to work from - we all have baggage and commitments from our past that we carry forward - but I think it's right to get ourselves in a head space that allows us to imagine new and better lives for ourselves, and for the world.

As author Barbara Kingsolver once said, "Hope is a moral imperative." At the start of a new year, we collectively determine to hope so that we can make progress.

Too often, though, the resolutions we make feel like a collection of chores predetermined for us by the masses. Eat well, exercise, go to bed on time. While all of these may be admirable, for me they just aren't meaty enough to propel me forward. This year, I want more.

My hope for 2017 and beyond  is that I develop the kind of habits that lead to seeing the world through the eyes of kindness and justice. 


When I started writing on justice issues, my particular focus was on making more ethical purchases. That meant avoiding sweatshop labor and prioritizing sustainable raw materials sourcing. Simple enough, right?

But the Catch-22 of thinking about and working toward justice is that everything is interconnected.

Depressed wages in developing nations are a direct result of political and economic decisions enacted by domestic and foreign governments. The fact that demand still exists for low wage jobs is due, in part, to cataclysmic social shifts that force people out of now unsustainable agrarian lifestyles and into the cities. At each step in the supply chain, someone has been asked to cut costs even when there's nothing left to cut. It's an impossible race to the bottom. There are no winners.

Demanding fair wages is just a start. It won't fix broken systems.

I mention all this because it serves as a microcosm of the broader problem of having a pet issue without considering the big picture. But the big picture can be totally overwhelming. It can overload us to the point of shutting us down. What's the solution?

Put another way: How do I learn to see big problems in their even larger context and respond effectively and compassionately, without total overwhelm?

I believe the first step forward comes from within.

There are relatively immediate, physical lifestyle changes I can make in my life that will have a positive effect on the world. I can shop and eat sustainably and responsibly, for instance. But for long term change, you need buy in, and you only get there when you've changed your point of view, when you see the world through new eyes.

To that end, my resolutions for global change are deeply intertwined with the small, daily tasks of just being in the world. The key is being in a way that shapes you into the person that can effectively bring about long term progress. 

1. Practice humility. 


The first step is admitting that I don't have the complete picture, and maybe I never will. To be clear, I can learn from and trust my own interactions, but I can't necessarily make drastic conclusions based on my highly individualized experiences.

To cultivate humility, I will seek out communities that challenge what I think I know without dismissing me. My workplace is a dynamic and diverse environment, so I will start there, working to have productive conversations on politics and ethics around the lunch table.

2. Think local. 


The concept of social justice didn't really click for me until I joined a local community organizing group. When you work with people you live near, you already know what's at stake for your community. That relative intimacy helps you work through personal issues to find solutions. It reminds you that people - including yourself - are deeply flawed, but that imperfection is not a barrier to doing good.

To cultivate local engagement, I will stay in touch with people working toward systemic change in my own community.

3. Cultivate intention.


I manage a retail space, so on any given week, my life bumps up against the lives of at least a hundred people, from volunteers to staff to customers. I've realized over the last few years that each time I make eye contact with someone, I have a responsibility. I can make someone's day better or not affect it at all (hopefully, I never make it worse). I choose to do what I can to make it better. My shop recently committed to "see our customers as the unique people they are, and celebrate it." Imagine what a difference that could make if we clearly and intentionally projected that ideal. Imagine the hope.

To cultivate intention, I will consider the way I interact with every single person I come into contact with and do my best to celebrate them for who they are, and who they can be.

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I want hope to become habit. 


And the only way to get there is to, slowly but surely, let my heart be changed. I know it won't be easy, but it's worth it for global change.

on seeing people


This post is a follow up to my previous post, You Don't Have to Feel It

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I tell the college-aged women at my church that service industry work builds character, and I truly believe that. You're being paid to interact with whoever comes in the door; to answer even dumb questions with kindness; and to treat rich and poor, annoying and pleasant with impartiality and grace. Now, I haven't always seen this principle of equality practiced that effectively among my coworkers and I admit to being less-than-welcoming on a few occasions, but I believe in the ideal, and that normally keeps me from snapping. 

Life has changed a lot since I got my first retail job and it's changed even more since August, when I started managing a church-run charity shop. Suddenly, most of my coworkers were 60+  and my customer base became a lot more diverse. While it wasn't always easy to please the affluent, international clientele at the coffee shop on the Downtown Mall (an outdoor pedestrian street full of local shops and street musicians), it was predictable enough to fall into a rhythm. Wealthy, left-leaning business people seemed more alike than different, so I could easily go on auto pilot and I didn't have to hold my tongue - they appreciated the spectacle of their minimum wage barista chatting about politics and theology while the espresso grinder whirred in the background. 

But the thrift shop is different. The thrift shop doesn't discriminate. Due to its place in the retail hierarchy, it can't help but welcome all. We're here for the poor and the bored, the frazzled mom, the wealthy house wife, the college hipster. Anyone and everyone comes through that door. We've made coffee for a homeless couple who got caught in an autumn rain storm, outfitted a dog in a child's vest to keep it from getting cold, opened the staff lunch table to a new age hippie who lives on the outskirts of town, given free clothes to new mothers, bartered for tech services with a man with life-threatening allergies, and enlightened a donor about the global human trafficking industry. We've cried, prayed, and laughed. We've played with children and helped old ladies out to their cars. 

It sounds like utopia - and it is, in a way - but it isn't easy to keep being open to whatever the day holds. It's easier to sit in the back and chat with coworkers. It's easier to sit in my office in the dark, checking emails aimlessly or texting my husband. It's easier not to deal with the uncertainty of each new interaction. And things between me and the volunteer staff have gotten heated on more than one occasion. We gossip too much; we forget we come from different worlds.

I can no longer make assumptions about who people are, or how they'll react. With every interaction, it is made more clear that I'm dealing with individuals, not stereotypes. I have to see the person in front of me - really see them - and I have to make a little room in my heart for vulnerability and loosen the death grip I have around my perspective. This is community; it's not about me. 

This is what I'm getting at: mutual understanding doesn't come naturally. To see people, you have to be willing to get to know them. You have to ask them what they need instead of assuming you have the answers. You have to see past the small talk and really look them square in the face and try to memorize it for next time. You have to learn to do this every single time. And it's never easy. 

If we want to build a world full of compassionate people, if we want to change lives both here and across the globe, we have to start with the people right in front of us. We have to start having intentional interactions, every time. Charity becomes problematic when, instead of seeing the person on the other side, we only see ourselves reflected back. 

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Artwork: Communion by Ruth Meharg. Used with permission.

darkness and light: how religion shapes my fair trade journey


Style Wise has always been about building a community of people centered around a common goal of buying and living more ethically. Because of that, it's never been a priority to share the more intimate inner workings of my values system. And, more than that, it's kind of terrifying.

My blogger friend, Hoda, recently shared post ideas that helped her blog grow and one of them was sharing more personal stories. I love that she is passionate about fair trade and sustainability issues in the clothing industry, but I really appreciate that she is an American Muslim who isn't afraid to enlighten people to her reality in a clear and compassionate way. 

In that same strain, I thought it could be useful to share my back story. So, here goes. 

I grew up in a conservative Evangelical Christian tradition called the First Church of God. They're not too different from most Evangelical churches in the US, but they do ordain women to be ministers, which is somewhat unusual. I became a Christian when I was 6, reciting the Sinner's Prayer, and got baptized before middle school. I tell people I could have been the poster child for my high school youth group. I was involved - sometimes it felt like I lived at church - and passionate about living Christianity correctly. I was morality driven thanks to a father who had always been involved in political engagement on issues of abortion, education, and climate change. The family spent many nights at home watching the news and discussing world issues. We also read the Bible together several times a week. It was useful in fostering spiritual discipline and rhetorical confidence, but it wasn't all good.


I convinced my best friend to become a Christian in the fourth grade by telling her she would go to Hell if she didn't. I alienated a friend in need in high school by practicing an attitude of moral superiority in almost everything I undertook. I didn't realize until college that my unwillingness to hear people out continued to affect the people I had unwittingly abandoned in their time of need years ago.

In tandem with that realization, I became quite interested in studying Religious Studies at my state university. I had always wondered why, if half of the Christian Bible was Old Testament, we didn't take more time to understand the context and culture of ancient Hebrews/Israelites/Jews. So, I plunged right in to the program, taking classes on the Hebrew Prophets, David, and Job. I loved this literary and historical approach to the texts I'd grown up with but had always found boring. I discovered the humor and depth of the narratives simply by acknowledging them as art rather than cold, hard fact. This concerned my family, who had always believed in Biblical Literalism. They were afraid I was on my way to false belief or even atheism. For the sake of brevity, I'm understating the emotional devastation this period in my life brought as I began to question my belief system and came to terms with the fact that the hyper-structured Christianity I had grown up with just wasn't cutting it. It wasn't answering enough questions. It wasn't giving enough grace.


I wasn't quite ready to leave Evangelicalism, but in the end, I felt I had little choice. I spiraled to a dark place, feeling unsupported by my church community and unable to speak the language of faith I had been fluent in for most of my life. The tropes and phrases and expressions no longer rang true for me. I left the church for about a year and a half, during which I never stopped struggling to understand what I believed, where I stood before God, and how to move forward. It was an extremely gradual process that carried a lot of uncertainty, anger, and isolation, but things did get better.

I spent about two years wondering if God existed, wondering if a church so opposed to change could actually change the world. During that time, I began to take an interest in fair trade issues. I always knew that my particular perspective could not have arisen without my faith tradition and without my journey through doubt and darkness. Even on days when God didn't seem very useful, the life of Christ impacted me. Jesus demonstrated impartial grace. It's not a love that glosses over problems, but a love that exposes the darkness and works to make it light. 


The way I live is deeply impacted by this narrative, by his model, and it would be ignorant to suggest that I could be who I am now without this religious reference point. This model of "being light" is useful because it means I'm called to cast away my reservations and give joy and hope to others. I'm also called to lighten people's loads by extending grace and working beside them. It's a call to work! Jesus solved people's immediate problems before talking to them about intellectual or spiritual goals. In the same way, I believe the best charity models seek to alleviate pain and need first and foremost. To be like Christ is to do work without expectation of personal payoff. I think the mission of his life speaks for itself and that the best evangelism I can do is love, accept, and welcome all people. That's why I talk about issues without talking about Religion. I don't seek to hide it, but I want the hard work of living ethically and intentionally to get done regardless of my faith tradition and whether or not others share it with me.


Now I belong to a local Episcopal Church (The Episcopal Church Welcomes You - that's their motto) and have found a great deal of support and Christ-like love in my faith community. Living according to a value system is important and having people who can help propel you forward by asking hard questions and lending a hand is vital. 

I hope that this blog can help support you on your journeys to live more ethically and I know that some of you have really helped keep me going on this path. 

Thanks for reading. - Leah