Bees and Mark Twain: Is Work Good or Bad?

Photo by Brandon Grasley.


By Josh Rueff on May 22, 2013

Most people hate work. I’ve been taught that this is wrong, that work is good, healthy, and necessary. Observing nature has taught me otherwise.

Man has always learned from the nature around him. We watched the heron wait patiently, frozen on the water’s edge, thrusting the spear of it’s beak in an explosion of piercing force and energy to capture it’s prey. And we invented the spear.

We watched the hawk climb high on the back of the wind, wielding its energy effortlessly, and releasing its harness on the sky to dive from the clouds as a star falls from the heavens. And we built the plane. 

But what can we learn from the humble insects that crawl beneath our feet?

Watching the bee gather pollen, and the ant as it carries many times it’s own weight; or the spider as she weaves her dew-jeweled masterpieces.

Do they have anything to offer?

Surprisingly, the observation of the insect has taught me the true definition of work; the human definition is wrong – atching the insect has helped change my perspective in a way that will help me live life to it’s fullest.

The Bee’s “Work” is Healthy

As a human it’s hard to see any kind of advantage in living like an insect. A bee for example, does nothing but work, traveling from flower to flower, carrying and building her burden day after day until she dies.

As a human I have a natural aversion to the thought that work is the sole purpose for life. I want more – I want to travel and see adventure. I crave the excitement of the raging ocean beneath my feet, the taste of salt on my lips. I love to nap on the warmth of the sand as the sun blankets me with all of the benefits of natural light, and I love to test my wit against the rest of nature, hunting, fishing, and gardening. I want to have relationship with family and friends – I want to help and be helped, love and be loved.

Is there anything more enjoyable and fulfilling than a healthy friendship?

If you consider life from the bee’s point of view, the work they do isn’t so bad.

Her brain is that of the insect; she does what she knows is good, and is satisfied. She has an ability that others don’t, and she uses it for the good of her family – she travels the world on a daily basis, and finds fulfillment in doing what she loves.

The vast variety of beauty she experiences is overwhelming; the elegant grace of the jasmine, the humble glory of the lily, the surreal allure of the orchid. 

What human job could be so fulfilling? And yet it is important to know the difference between the mind of a bee, and the complexity of the human’s. This kind of specialization should only be pursued if it meets the demands of the human mind’s need for intellectual and artistic fulfillment.

From the bee I’ve learned that fulfillment is often found in simplicity – not just any simplicity – the simplicity that promotes variety.

The bee’s work is simple. She gathers pollen and makes honey. But her experience is vast: In the a bee’s lifetime, it will travel over 500 miles, visiting up to 2,000 flowers daily. If the minimum lifespan of a honeybee is 6 weeks, that’s 84,000 flowers visited in a lifetime!

An art, movie, or literary critic would be proud to visit and work with 84,000 works of art in their lifetime, and their lifespan is roughly 652 times longer than the bee’s.

So what does the observation of the bee teach me?

1. Her work is specialized and simple, but the experience is complex and fulfilling.

2. Her work isn’t a job in the human sense – the bee’s work is a fulfilling lifetime of art that feeds the family and helps the community.

3. The work she does is for others as much as it is for herself.

4. Variety is a strong characteristic of her trade.

5. Diligence and work ethic can be seen clearly, but it’s natural for her because again, it’s not “work” in the human since – it’s her passion, calling, and masterpiece. 

If I learn from the example of the bee, I’ll choose a life calling, not a job – a career spent honing a skill; an art that only I can do. This “work” is not really work at all, although diligence and a sense of work ethic are still required.

Mark Twain’s Approach to “Work”

Mark Twain believed that ” Work is is a necessary evil to be avoided.” He consistently spoke against the Puritan work ethic and the evil of overworking and workaholic-ism in America. But his career was marked by success due to the time and effort he put into his work… Or was it work?

This excerpt from Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court shows Twain’s approach to work, and how his definition of work was closer to that of the honey bee’s:

There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about “the working classes,” and satisfy themselves that a day’s hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day’s hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they all know about the one, but haven’t tried the other. But I know all about both; and as far as I am concerned, there isn’t money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down–and I will be satisfied, too. Intellectual “work” is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation and its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the magician with the fiddle-bow in his hand who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him–why certainly, he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair–but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash, also. And it’s also the very law of those transparent swindles, transmissible nobility and kingship.

So if I follow the path of the bee and the success of men like Mark Twain, I will pursue a career that I love; a career I consider an art and a joy – specialization is reserved for insects except as it fulfills and creates variety and beauty.

The nature of my work should not simply help myself, but benefit others equally, especially my family and immediate community.

That’s what I’ve learned from the bees.