Even bees burn out

Anthropomorphising means giving a nonhuman being, particularly an animal, a supposedly human attribute. Anthropomorphising isn’t supposed to be sensible or logical, but ironically, science keeps coming up with examples that substantiate it.

Take, for instance, the humble honey bee. On a recent trip to Kangaroo Island (beautiful, by they way), I learned that the only colony of pure Ligurian honey bees in the world is in KI. They were originally from Liguria in the Alps, but a parasite killed them there and everywhere else they’d been moved to.

It seems that worldwide, other types of bees are dying out too, endangering food production because bees pollinate so many of our food crops. The phenomenon is known as colony collapse disorder (CDD) and KI is a bee sanctuary (no other types of bees are allowed on the island) and pivotal in fighting extinction of bee colonies and the preservation of our food supplies.

CDD can be caused by disease, parasites or — wait for it — overwork. What’s happening is bee keepers are forcing bees to work for longer hours and over the whole year than nature intended them to work. For instance, bee keepers move the bees from the Californian almond farms to the apple and pear orchards of the North in summer and then to the citrus plantations of the South in winter. All this unnatural moving around means the bees are being worked to death and the bee colony eventually collapses.

There’s a lesson there about sustainable agriculture and maybe a lesson for people who work long hours, too. Some organisations have a long-hours culture and people are afraid of losing their jobs if they don’t put in lots of ‘voluntary’, unpaid overtime every week. Technology gives us the ability and flexibility to take work home with us and work all the hours we want to or feel obliged to work, especially in the global marketplace that never stops working. And when we’re not working, many of us have family and household responsibilities and all sorts of other pressures on our time.

And you have to wonder–how productive and efficient can over-worked people be? The answer is: not very.

People who regularly work more than 60 hours a week have a marked increase in the risk of depression, illness and injury than people who work more reasonable hours. In Japan, death from over-work is so common it has a name: karoshi, estimated to be responsible for up to 10,000 deaths a year in Japan.

To anthropomorphise a bit, people and bees are perhaps not so different. Work is good for people and it’s good for bees, but too much work doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy; it could also make Jill a widow.

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