Opinions, Column

Busy as a Bee

I’m sure you have heard the saying “busy as a bee.” But have you ever stopped to think about what it really means? It’s a nod to the worker bees in a hive colony of bees—usually honeybees—who collect pollen and nectar for the hive. Bees are indeed industrious, visiting around 4,000 flowers to make just one tablespoon of honey. 

To use another colloquialism, bees work smarter not harder. And in this instance, I think humans could benefit from taking a cue from the animal kingdom—after all, we too are animals.  

Worker bees aren’t just machines. They don’t buzz around working nonstop all day, despite what their name might suggest. 

Bees take breaks, and they do so intentionally and frequently. Even for the most elite worker bees, activity levels spike and dip consistently, indicating they too partake in strategic periods of rest. 

Some bees work during the day, taking breaks at night (like us!). Others work around the clock, but take repeated breaks throughout. 

What’s more, bees choose their battles wisely. If there’s a cold snap or strong winds or lots of rain, they take the day off to not waste their precious energy and time battling the elements. This way, they maximize efficiency and save energy for days with more ideal conditions for gathering pollen. 

I was first exposed to these bee behaviors in my Behavioral Ecology class and found myself immediately entranced. Weirdly, I felt a strong camaraderie with bees. As it turns out, honeybees have a fixed lifetime capacity for spending energy. So, instead of just working themselves until their cute little wings simply can’t fly anymore, they maximize their energetic efficiency on each  journey, weighing how much nectar they should take from each flower and how long they should fly for, and a key part of boosting this efficiency is taking breaks. 

When I am studying, I often feel that I hit a similar wall of energetic capacity where I simply cannot stand to read another sentence. That’s usually when I call it a day and begin the trek back from O’Neill. But—unlike I was taught to think—bee behavior tells us this journey home should not be thought of as a walk of defeat. I think that we, like bees, only have a capacity for so much work in a single day. In my experience, pushing past this limit results in burnout that is hard to come back from, even after watching hours of brain-numbing reality shows or sleeping all day. 

As it turns out, research actually supports my hypothesis. Taking frequent intermittent breaks while studying or working, like bees do when collecting nectar, is not only beneficial for our own health, but it is also beneficial for our learning.  

Going for a quick walk or even getting up to grab a drink is refreshing for your brain. It allows you to focus better when you sit back down, and it enables you to memorize information better than if you hadn’t taken a break. 

There’s even a substantiated study method called the Pomodoro technique, which advocates for 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break until the task at hand is complete. 

When studying, your prefrontal cortex is doing all the heavy lifting. It is working hard to keep you focused and help you problem-solve. Most importantly, it is enabling you to resist the urge to check your phone or email. The longer you work, the harder it is to resist these impulses and the more brain power and energy it takes to keep working. 

Bees know there is a point where they could keep collecting nectar from a flower, but they would be expending the energy needed to then fly back to the hive. So when humans reach the point where we know we won’t gain anything from pushing onward, we should simply stop! Let’s take a cue from bees by acknowledging our capacity and allowing ourselves to take a break and recharge. 

My experience of hitting a wall and feeling burnout is common and has to do with a lack of meaningful breaks. When our brains take short breaks throughout the day, studies have shown that our stress is reduced, our performance is increased, and there is less need for a long recovery following the workday. Taking small breaks every day over the course of a year is proven to increase overall energy and vigor on a long-term scale. And who couldn’t use a little extra energy? 

Working for hours straight is absolutely draining. Bees don’t do it, and their success in foraging is a life-or-death situation as they search for their every meal. So, why do we burn ourselves out so often while studying and working when it’s not even conducive to learning? 

Bees have been around on this planet a lot longer than we have (try their 120 million years compared to our measly 300,000). So, it’s safe to say that we could stand to learn a little about working from their few extra millions of years of evolution. With this in mind, try taking a break—even if it is for only five or so minutes. I guarantee that afterward you will feel more equipped to tackle whatever it is life has to throw at you.

February 25, 2023