The Wisdom of Bees
By Michael O’Malley
Portfolio Penguin
Did you know that Sherlock Holmes retired to keep bees? Apparently he said that a hive “provides as much incident as can be found on the streets of London.” And did you know that bees are the only invertebrates with symbolic language? Or that they always keep their hives at exactly 39 degrees centigrade?

These are among the snippets of information that keep you racing through this little book by a social psychologist, management consultant and bee-keeper, which ingeniously uses the lives of bees and the organisation of the hive to teach 25 business lessons. I’m tempted to call it a mini M-Bee-A.

So we learn that bees are long-termist, just like 3M or Procter & Gamble, and that bees pace themselves and always work for the success of the whole hive – which teaches us that you shouldn’t run your staff into the ground. And that bees make sure they have diversity in the hive, just like some creative companies do.

Bees know when to protect their resources, and when to go out looking for new sources of food – just like clever businesses. Bees don’t rush workers out into the field until they are ready; if they do, then the colony will die off. The parallel with a business that trains people too quickly is obvious. Also, hives are meritocracies which jettison underperformers.

Of course, the parallels are not precise. Bees delegate very effectively and the queen communicates using an informational cascade that, we are told, is the envy of every CEO. As she does it via the secretions of pheromones from her mandibular glands, however, it is not exactly clear how the CEO can replicate this.

Obviously, not all bee behaviour is translatable into a neat little business lesson. When 18th century scientists started studying bees they couldn’t accept that the most important bee – the queen – was a female. Then they insisted that she was gentle, merciful and chaste, the ideal female qualities of the era. But she is none of these things – she is wildly promiscuous and will sting anybody who displeases her. What does that say about business? And let’s not even mention drones.

But none of that really matters. This is a brilliant solution to the boringness of business books, and the bee metaphors make the lessons memorable. The most fun business book I have read this year. A bee-auty.