Wearing Out Our Wings: The Allegory of the Honey Bee

When I was a little girl, my father used to help a brother in our ward tend to his beehives. Occasionally, I would go with him, but I would have to wait in the house while the men were out working with the bees. It always seemed like I had to sit and wait for ages, but that long wait usually ended with a special treat: a bite of waxy honeycomb, dripping with sweet, sweet honey.

Nearly 20 years later, I am here in Newcastle, pursuing a masters in Organic Farming. As one who is very interested in natural food production processes—and no doubt strongly influenced by my memories of the honeycomb treats—I was eager to join my uni’s beekeeping group. This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the first informational meeting of the year, and what I learned about honeybees enlightened my mind and excited my imagination. What incredible little creatures these are! Nearly ⅓ of the food we eat requires pollination by bees and other creatures. Honey contains all the substances—enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and water—necessary to sustain life. And when properly stored, honey’s shelf life is pretty much forever.

There are few things in this universe that can claim such longevity, but the scriptures are pretty specific about one in particular. 1 Corinthians 13:8 says, “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.”

Honey bees have long been used as a symbol for various gospel topics like hard work and unity, but please indulge me for the next few minutes as I add one more symbol to the honey bee’s spiritual repertoire. Here are eight lessons we can learn about Charity from the humble little honey bee.

First: each hive has a single queen, and she is the mother of all the bees in that hive. The bees work together to care for her and for each other.

Likewise, we have one Heavenly Father, who is our King and Creator. We are all His children, and we have been commanded to serve him and one another. When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, he answered with, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matt 22: 37-39)

Moroni gave a definition of Charity as “the pure love of Christ.” (Moroni 7:47)This has several potential interpretations. The pure love of Christ can refer to Christ’s perfect love for all mankind, our own love for Christ, and the exhortation to love others as purely as Christ loves them. Therefore, charity sums up both the first and the second great commandment—and by extension, all of the other great commandments at well. For if we love God, we must keep His commandments, and if we love others as He does, then  abstaining from theft, covetousness, adultery, dishonesty, or anything else that would harm one of our brothers or sisters will be the natural byproduct of that love. When we truly love God and others, we will have no desire to sin, and we will be united in seeking the common good of all mankind.

Second, each of the 2,000 eggs laid daily by the queen bee undergoes the tranformative process we all know as metamorphosis. Like these bees, we must undergo a spiritual metamorphosis as we learn how to be charitable. Elder Marvin J. Ashton said, “We often equate charity with visiting the sick, taking in casseroles to those in need, or sharing our excess with those who are less fortunate. But really, true charity is much, much more. Real charity is not something you give away; it is something that you acquire and make a part of yourself. And when the virtue of charity becomes implanted in your heart, you are never the same again.”

In Paul’s great discourse on charity in 1 Corinthians 13, he says, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” If you’ve ever seen a baby look at themselves in the mirror, it is a highly amusing thing. They don’t recognize themselves, and they often react like it’s another child entirely. Only as we grow up do we learn to identify our own reflections. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul expounds on this idea by saying, “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory,even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” In other words, those who follow Christ’s example are changed little by little until they have His image in their countenance. We will see Him in ourselves and ourselves in Him, as if we are looking in a mirror, and it is little wonder that Mormon said, “when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.” (Moroni 7: 48)

But James offers a stern warning to those who would hear the word of the Lord and fail to put it into practice in their lives. He said, “For if any be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightaway forgetteth what manner of man he was.” (James 1:23) If we would learn to know ourselves, we must learn to follow Christ and become what He intends for us to be. And as Elder D. Todd Christofferson reminds us, “God will not act to make us something we do not choose by our actions to become.”

Third,when a honey bee gathers nectar and pollen from a flower, it also helps to pollinate that flower, thereby ensuring that the plant can reproduce. As we go about our daily lives, are we simply taking what we need to survive, or are we doing what we can to leave the world a better place? Elder Marvin J. Ashton said, “Be one who nurtures and who builds. Be one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart, who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them. Be fair with your competitors, whether in business, athletics, or elsewhere. Don’t get drawn into some of the parlance of our day and try to “win” by intimidation or by undermining someone’s character. Lend a hand to those who are frightened, lonely, or burdened. If we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us faces, I think we would treat each other much more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance, and care.”

And speaking of bees and flowers and pollination, I learned this week that monoculture is bad for bees. Acres and acres of the same crop may mean plenty of food nectar for them to gather, but it’s not a properly balanced diet. Furthermore, if that crop fails, or flowers on days when the weather prevents bees from flying, they will have missed their chance to gather food. On the other hand, weeds are actually quite good for bees, as it offers them a variety of nectars and blooming times.

Therefore, the fourth lesson we can learn from bees is to diversify—to reach out to others who are different, or even—perhaps especially—those who do not treat us as we might like to be treated. Elder Oaks’ talk in conference reminded us that, “We are to live in the world but not be of the world. We must live in the world because, as Jesus taught in a parable, His kingdom is “like leaven,” whose function is to raise the whole mass by its influence (see Luke 13:21; Matthew 13:33; see also 1 Corinthians 5:6–8). His followers cannot do that if they associate only with those who share their beliefs and practices.” Elder Marvin J. Ashton further explained, “Perhaps the greatest charity comes when we are kind to each other, when we don’t judge or categorize someone else, when we simply give each other the benefit of the doubt or remain quiet. Charity is accepting someone’s differences, weaknesses, and shortcomings; having patience with someone who has let us down; or resisting the impulse to become offended when someone doesn’t handle something the way we might have hoped. Charity is refusing to take advantage of another’s weakness and being willing to forgive someone who has hurt us. Charity is expecting the best of each other.”

Fifth, honey bees will travel 90,000 miles to gather enough nectar to make 1kg of honey. 90,000 miles! That is the equivalent of 3 trips around the world! Their little wings beat 200 times per second during their foraging flights, and when they die, it’s usually because they’ve literally worn their wings out.

Are we wearing out our wings in the service of God and His children? Are we so devoted to our cause that we will go to whatever lengths are necessary to do the work that must be done? I used to have a hard time doing my visiting teaching because my assignments had me driving great distances, but it certainly wasn’t 90,000 miles. I don’t think I have any right to complain.

In Helaman 10: 4-5, the Lord tells Nephi, “Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and hast not sought thine own life, but hast sought my will, and to keep my commandments. And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.”

In D&C 121:45-46, we read, “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.”

Unwearyingness. Unceasingly. Constant. Unchanging. Everlasting. Forever and ever. Remember the part about Charity never failing? Brothers and Sisters, I think this is the key to that. If we have true charity, our love for others is constant, unchanging, everlasting, unwearying. And when we do those things that the Lord has asked us to do, He will bless us with the strength and confidence to do His work.

Now, I’ll admit that the amount of work that needs to be done can be a bit overwhelming. Where do we start? Many individuals in the Church do not have the means to participate in great charitable endeavors or to enact sweeping changes that benefit the entire world. Some may even be discouraged by their lack of time, talent, or means to do all that they feel driven to do to serve their fellow men. And how much can little old me accomplish, really? Again, the bees have the answer.

After an adult bee emerges from their metamorphic cell, they don’t start to fly around and make honey right away. They start out as what are called “house bees”, which are responsible for tasks such as cleaning the hive, feeding baby bees, and tending to the queen. It is not until the last 2 weeks of their short lives that they actually leave the hive to do their foraging, and in that time, they will only produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey.

In our most recent General Conference, Elder Holland offered this thoughtful reflection: “Given the monumental challenge of addressing inequity in the world, what can one man or woman do? The Master Himself offered an answer. When, prior to His betrayal and Crucifixion, Mary anointed Jesus’s head with an expensive burial ointment, Judas Iscariot protested this extravagance and ‘murmured against her.’ Jesus said: ‘Why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work. … She hath done what she could.’  She hath done what she could! What a succinct formula! A journalist once questioned Mother Teresa of Calcutta about her hopeless task of rescuing the destitute in that city. He said that, statistically speaking, she was accomplishing absolutely nothing. This remarkable little woman shot back that her work was about love, not statistics. Notwithstanding the staggering number beyond her reach, she said she could keep the commandment to love God and her neighbor by serving those within her reach with whatever resources she had. ‘What we do is nothing but a drop in the ocean,’ she would say on another occasion. ‘But if we didn’t do it, the ocean would be one drop less [than it is].’ Soberly, the journalist concluded that Christianity is obviously not a statistical endeavor. He reasoned that if there would be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over the ninety and nine who need no repentance, then apparently God is not overly preoccupied with percentages.”

Even when our small acts of kindness don’t seem to make a difference, I promise you that they do. Even when we don’t have the glorious job of gathering honey, if you are doing what you can to serve, your influence for good is more powerful than you will ever know. Elder Ballard said, “great things are brought about and burdens are lightened through the efforts of many hands ‘anxiously engaged in a good cause’ (D&C 58:27). Imagine what the millions of Latter-day Saints could accomplish in the world if we functioned like a beehive in our focused, concentrated commitment to the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Lesson number seven: While we humans enjoy much of the honey produced by these honey bees, they also need some of it to feed their hive. And like prudent little workers, they make sure to store plenty of honey to keep the hive fed during the cold winter months when they cannot forage for more. However, since the summer-time worker bees don’t live very long, they usually don’t eat that stored honey themselves—rather, they store it for the bees that will come after them, who cannot gather nectar and pollen for themselves.

In Leviticus 19:9-10, the Lord gives this commandment to the children of Israel, “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger.” Another historical event that illustrates this principle occurred when the early Latter-day Saints were traveling westward to the Salt Lake Valley. Along the way, they often stopped and planted crops for those that would come after them on the trail.

I love the concept of anticipating opportunities to show charity, and planning ahead so that we can be ready when those opportunities come. I used to work at a non-profit that provided after-school programs for at-risk youth. Most of our kids lived well below the poverty line, and often lacked for the very basics that so many of us take for granted. One of the local stakes organized a service drive, and one of their projects was organizing and donating “birthday kits” to the parents of the children in our program. These kits weren’t anything spectacular—just cake mix, a container of frosting, and a disposable foil baking pan—but it was an opportunity to ensure that even if those parents can’t afford a fancy gift for their child’s birthday, they will at least have the means to provide them with a special cake.

As we go about our daily lives, we should look for ways that we can anticipate charity and plan for those. We should always be prepared to serve others when they need it.

The last and probably most important lesson we can learn from bees is that when they are foraging for nectar and pollen, they navigate by orienting themselves with the sun. As we navigate daily life and look for opportunities to serve God’s children, we can orient ourselves to the Son, S-O-N, who was and is the ultimate example of charity. Isaiah teaches this about Christ: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.” (Isaiah 63:9) His charity is what redeems us, and our charity can help others accept and gain the blessings of the Atonement of Christ. With Him, we can be saviors on Mount Zion, and together, our hive of industrious little honey bees can feed the world with the life-sustaining nectar of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

May we wear out our wings in the service of our God and our brothers and sisters as we practice Charity, the pure love of Jesus Christ.

Given as a talk in Sacrament Meeting on Oct.19, 2014.

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