The Beehive Model for team building

Participatory Techniques

by Chiku Malunga.

This article introduces ‘the Beehive Model’ of team building. It compares the work of teams with the way bees behave in a hive. It may help to raise awareness and understanding within organisations and community groups about the importance of using teams and of what makes a successful team. It may also provide ideas for looking at how existing teams perform.

What do we mean by teams? They are usually groups of between four to twelve people who meet together over time and solve problems together. Teams may help to:

  • cope with complicated situations because of their members’ varied experiences
  • bring rapid responses
  • maintain high motivation by valuing each individual member
  • ensure high quality decisions.

The Beehive Model

Bees live in hives with clear social organisation. Each hive has three types of bees, each with distinct work. The queen is responsible for laying eggs, the male drones for fertilising them, and the female workers for gathering food and caring for the hive. Each type of bee is adapted for its work. The workers change their duties as their age increases. They start by feeding the larvae; then they ventilate and cool the hive by fanning it with their wings; then they clean the hive and finally they leave on food-collecting expeditions. Bees of different ages carry out all these varied tasks at any one time.

The worker bees’ other main duty is to attack and, if necessary, sting intruders. When the worker uses her sting, her gut is usually ripped out and she dies soon afterwards. Her defence is therefore an act of suicide in which she sacrifices her life for the other bees.

Social ties hold the bees in the hive together. The workers lick both the larvae and the queen when they are not busy working. The workers collect food for everyone in the hive. Worker bees out collecting food, pass on messages to tell other bees where to find food. They do this by ‘dances’. On returning to the hive from the food source, two kinds of dances may be performed. If the food is less than 100 metres away the bee performs a dance in which it moves round and round in a tight circle telling the other bees food is near but not exactly where to find it. If the food is more than 100 metres away, another dance is performed which tells the other bees exactly where the food is.

After sharing this model (which is ideal for use in workshops), let people consider their own situation and discuss this first in small groups (see end of article for 'Discussion starters'). Then encourage people to share their insights together.

What can teams learn?

Organisation The beehive has a structure that is clear and understood by all its members. The bees live together over a long period of time. The bees live close together and work together well.

It may take several years for teams to work well together. They need clear aims. They need to work closely together to share and discuss ideas and solutions with all members contributing.

Membership In the hive there are three types of bees, each with different functions. Each type is adapted for its particular job. The different individuals are accepted and appreciated. Each group in the hive is qualified and experienced and therefore has something to offer to the team.

Teams are made up of individuals, and it is their different values, skills and experiences that help the team to work well. Effective teams need a mix of people able to work together.

The expectations are very clear in the hive. The drones are expected to fertilise the queen, the queen is expected to lay eggs and the workers are expected to maintain the hive.

Teams will not progress if expectations are not clear. Members must understand and be clear about their role and what is expected from them to reduce the risk of conflict and misunderstanding.

Division of work There is a clear division of labour in the hive, but no bee is forced to work – they do it willingly. The workers ensure that the hive has all the practical resources it needs to perform well. They change their duties as their age increases. This division of labour by each type is determined by sex, upbringing and age.

Teams should offer opportunity for individual growth and development and allow people gradually to take on more demanding and challenging work. Flexibility in teams is a great asset. Varied activities make life more exciting. Teams that offer little variety may soon lose their appeal.

Bees have clear and meaningful work – producing eggs, caring for the larvae and maintaining the hive in good order. Likewise, teams need a good balance between clear goals and maintaining or building up team members.

Team members should benefit from belonging to groups. Members should gain more from their membership than they put into the group. Team building is vital.

Support among the team’s members In the hive, there is a high degree of support among team members. Workers feed the larvae – the weak members. They also attack and, if necessary, sting intruders, sacrificing their lives in the process. They are willing to give up their lives for the well being of the hive.

Team members need to support one another. New members may need a lot of support. Belonging to a team may call for sacrifices from the members. Membership may involve changing individual values and behaviour to those needed for the team as a whole.

Each team member must take this responsibility to protect the team from outside forces which might destroy it. Team members need to be committed to the team’s purpose and to one another. This commitment is the force that bonds the members together.

Communication and fun When they come back from their food expeditions successfully, the workers perform dances. Teams will not be successful without effective communication. Open communication builds trust. Teams need access to information so that members can manage themselves. Team members need to listen to each other.

Successful teams are fun. Dancing is a sign of celebration, happiness and fun. Members get a lot of satisfaction by being part of the team and may openly express excitement, enthusiasm and enjoyment while carrying out their roles and tasks.

Every time the workers come back from the food expeditions, they call for a ‘meeting’ to give feedback of the success of their trip. Frequent and regular meetings play a critical role in the success of teams. Teams must physically meet and update each other about developments in relation to the task. After the ‘meetings’, the bees go out together to get the food. Effective teams get the job done!

Conclusion

Just like any other model, this one has limitations. For example, the number of bees in a hive is far more than twelve. In addition, bees are born into the hive – they do not choose to join ‘the team’. However, we can learn much from bees and the model may prove very useful. Can you apply it in your own situation using the discussion starters on page 10?

Chiku Malunga is a consultant working in rural development and NGO capacity building for CABUNGO, PO Box 1535, Blantyre, Malawi. Tel/fax: (265) 636 295
E-mail: cabungo@malawi.net

Discussion starters

  • What makes bees an effective team?
  • Can we learn something about gender from the model?
  • How similar is this model to our team situation?
  • How different is it from our situation?
  • Is there anything we could do differently to be a more effective team?