Friday July 7, 2017

Stewardship, the G20 & Honey Bees

Stewardship is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.” With more than 20 heads of state and government in Hamburg for the G20 Summit, the world is depending on these political leaders to act as stewards for the public good.

honeybee cartoon
Resilience, sustainability and responsibility are the guiding principles of this year’s meeting that will discuss 15 specific areas of focus, including many that are directly and indirectly tied to mental health. So today, as I spend time beekeeping in my backyard, I cannot help but think about how the buzzing world of the apis mellifera is an apt metaphor for our G20 leaders and mental health.

 

1.

The stakes are high. Through pollination, honey bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take. Wow. But no one talked about honey bees until about ten years ago, when news headlines called attention to the perilous effects of pests and pesticides that were ravaging bee colonies everywhere. Bad for bees; bad for us. We started paying attention when we realized we were losing 40% of the bee colonies each year. It is similar with mental illness. Hidden in plain sight until we recognized that mental illness is the leading cause of disability around the world. Same for many of the issues that the G20 is discussing. Ironic given that we know early intervention is almost always better.

2.

Resilience. Promoting resilience means survival of the honey bee. We need research to better understand what puts the bees at risk and what will result in more resilient bees. But resilience is not just relevant to individuals. We need policy that promotes programmatic decisions to enhance resilience of entire bee colonies. If bees disappear, we will still have food – albeit with less variety, reduced quality and at greater cost. The same is true for the issues like economic productivity, climate change and empowering women that our political leaders have prioritized for the G20. Things could get worse before they get attention; but it will cost us. Having been ignored for too long, that is where we are now with mental illness.

3.

Sustainability. Everyone talks about the queen bee, but really it’s not so great being the queen. Sure, on her maiden flight, she makes the most of the only time she will leave the hive and mates mid-air with as many drones as possible – usually 7 to 10. After that she lives in the dark and lays eggs. Yes, really. We need the queen, but we need every bee – because after the queen lays the eggs, the sustainability of the colony depends on the collective. Same for any decision at the G20. Same for mental health.

4.

Responsibility. The collective will collapse if any bee reneges on its responsibility to the hive. From foraging to caring for the brood, to making the honey, to keeping each other warm through the winter. Everyone is responsible. Today’s bees are busy making and storing honey that the hive will depend on for survival through the winter and early spring. But today’s bees will be long gone by that time given that summer worker bees live only about 40 days. The work today produces honey for a generation not yet born. Sweet. Same for economic growth. Same for climate change. Same for mental health.

5.

Don’t Sting. With all the sparring going on these days, the bees also remind us that it’s really a bad idea to sting someone. Honeybees sting only as a last resort. Once they do, they die.

Of course, our global human society is more complex than a honey bee colony, but there is no doubt that stewardship guided by principles of resilience, sustainability and responsibility is good for the G20, good for mental health and good for the bees.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD - Is Professor of Psychology & Director of the Mental Health Program at CUMC kmp2@cumc.columbia.edu