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6 Lessons That Businesses Can Learn From Bees

Those hives are teeming centers of efficiency and production. We could learn a little from nature.

[Image: Bees via ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock]

This is adapted from The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies Through Biomimicry

We are all investors, whether investing our own talents, our company’s resources, our time and energy as citizens, or our financial assets. And investing, done well, is a creative, engaged endeavor, premised on mutual benefit and mutual exchange, producing something of value to the world. This kind of true investing is more than speculation, more than trading. It’s a high bar to set, and begs the question, where do we go for the best advice? Who has the edge? Aggressive hedge fund managers, the talking heads on television, the Oracle of Omaha, or the Oracle on the tickertape?

Turns out, our best mentor for investing has been with us all along: it’s not Mr. Market, it’s Mother Nature. We are all searching for resilient, regenerative, deeply profitable endeavors, and it seems every week brings a new acronym for sustainability processes or innovation methods. Yet nature has adapted and thrived for 3.8 billion years—the most compelling track record around. Nature is not just a place to escape our professional lives; it is the source of deep wisdom that can improve our designs and decision-making.

Pausing before we create a product, reorganize a team, or allocate investments to ask, WWND? (What Would Nature Do?) leads to decisions that are effective instead of merely efficient, simple instead of synthetic, mindful instead of mechanical. The six major principles of biomimicry, established by Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister of Biomimicry 3.8, aren’t just clever buzzwords. These concepts describe how the world around us actually functions, and biomimicry aims to embrace nature’s wisdom, rather than just harvesting nature’s stuff. Aligning with the essential features of natural systems inherently orients us towards approaches that are multidimensional, longer term, and deeply, durably profitable.

Some of the most compelling natural wisdom I’ve found comes from the honeybee. Here are the six principles of biomimicry, illustrated by this inspiring creature:

BE RESOURCE AND ENERGY EFFICIENT

Efficiency in nature is not just fast and cheap; it reflects a deeper sort of true effectiveness. For example, the bees’ honeycombs look cool, with all of those neatly arrayed hexagons, but they are also incredibly efficient: the hexagon uses less material and energy per unit of structural integrity than any other shape. What if a simple term sheet were really all the organization that an investor needed? What if every one of us had an ideal mix of structure and flexibility in our workspace, or our meeting schedules?

USE LIFE-FRIENDLY CHEMISTRY

There are no toxic dumps in nature, no piles of excess inventory. Bees create an amazing array of products—honey, royal jelly, beeswax—with simple inputs of pollen and nectar. What might we create if we were more imaginative in using simple building blocks, rather than adding complicated synthetic processing and packaging?

INTEGRATE GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT

Natural systems grow in a complete, connected way, with supporting systems developing in sync. Honeybees do not go all out to maximize growth for growth’s sake: they expand the hive as more space is needed for growing population and for food storage. This "just in time" approach ensures that bees never have excess overhead draining their energy resources. What might we gain by growing appropriately over time, instead of starting out at a sprint, only to stumble from lack of support?

BE LOCALLY ATTUNED

Natural organisms thrive in context, connected with the rhythms and circumstances that surround them. The famous bee waggle dances convey complex local information in a very simple way. Each dance contains information about both site and quality of resources, and the detail shifts as needed to incorporate changing sun position and availability. This adjusting works in reverse, too: flowers only produce a certain amount of nectar at a time, to maximize the chances of multi-day, multi-visitor pollination. Talk about an efficient market!

ADAPT TO CHANGING CONDITIONS

Darwin’s famous "survival of the fittest" was a precise statement. When he said "fittest," Darwin did not mean strongest or fastest or even smartest: he meant most adaptable, best at handling change. When bees seek a change in hive location, simple rules and open, democratic information sharing guide their decision-making. First, the bees leave the hive; they do not call an all-hands meeting and retreat to a big conference room. Then, they share what they’ve learned from their scouting missions, openly and without spin; there are no bee pundits. What if we required leaving the office and objectively sharing knowledge when there was an important decision to be made?

EVOLVE TO SURVIVE

Over the long term, adaptation becomes evolution. No species evolves in isolation: honeybees and flowers have co-evolved over centuries. In fact, flowers evolved from ferns for the primary function of pollination, thus ensuring survival of their species. There are more specific types of evolutionary matches, too: one type of flower only releases its pollen when a certain type of bumblebee buzzes at the exact right vibration level. How might we better match investors and investees over the long term? What would our business ecosystems look like using this long term, co-evolutionary lens?

Of course, we are not insects—but looking to examples like the honeybee when we search for mentors, models, measures and muses can inspire actions that are more effective and adaptive, and therefore more fully and truly profitable. Moreover, we are part of nature ourselves, and re-centering on that basic fact can help us to establish a sense of humility and wonder, two central ingredients for real innovation and independent thinking. We are unique creatures, able to observe and process and create and connect in deeply human ways. Valuing this uniqueness, and the context in which it exists, begins to reconnect our investing with the real world. This, in turn, allows us to re-root our work in service to the even better world that we envision.

We are all investors—as citizens, as consumers, as business people, as creative beings. And this nature-based approach—resilient, regenerative, and reconnected—this is the true nature of investing.

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