This is a question I am often asked when I speak about Integral City. I have given it a lot of thought over the years.

My first impulse was to remember why the honey bee hive is about 50,000 bees (in the natural state – and up to 70,000 or so in domestic hives). The bees have developed particularly good reasons to manage the size of their hive. It has to do with managing heat. If the hive gets too big it takes too much energy (and water) to cool it down. In their natural wisdom, bees inhabit their hives with the optimum use of “bee space” allocating just the right amount of space for each bee to have the appropriate amount of room for the hive to achieve its purpose of producing 20 kg of honey per year. That means room to:

  • survive (eat, sleep, clean)
  • perform roles of honey production and storage, hive building and maintenance, (moving around the hive, communicating with each other) and
  • regenerate (supporting the eggs and pupae) in the hive’s bee lifecycles (overlapping cohorts of 45 days).

When bees outgrow their hives (i.e. exceed the optimum population of approximately 50,000) , it is a sign that they are thriving. They are humming the Song of Increase . So, while life is good, the bees tap into their hive-mind and make a collective decision that it is time to create a new hive. They prepare for their move by selecting 50 to 60% of the hive to fly off to a new site, with the old queen.

This strategy for swarming allows the “experienced” queen and her cohort of bees to collect at an initial staging post and send out scouts to find the best new home. The intelligence of bees means that they identify several possible sites and then “vote” on the preferred location. So, selecting the new location is another an act of collective consciousness.

Meanwhile the half of the hive that remains in the old location, makes a new queen and sets to work on creating a new “performance feedback loop” to bring the original hive back into a full “thrival” condition to produce 20 kg of honey/year.

Thus, learning from the bees would suggest to me the right size of a human hive depends on:

  • Knowing the energy input/output needs of the hive – how much space do we need to support the survival of humans in the city to eat, sleep, play, clean?
  • Knowing the space required to do our work in service to a shared purpose.
  • Knowing the space need for us to regenerate and sustain all generations.

The last factoid that contributes to this line of thought comes from the philosophers Aurobindo and The Mother. They proposed that the right size for cities was about 50,000 people. In the 1920’s when they were contemplating the development of the ideal city (the prototype of which is now known as Auroville in Tamil Nadu, India), they also proposed how India could expand its urban developments. They suggested the path was to build 20,000 cities of 50,000 each. That would allow each city to have a high quality of life – creating the conditions of wellbeing for the individual as well as the collective.

If you do the math of that number of cities in India would contain a population of 1 billion people (and 2020 population is 1.387 billion). So Aurobindo underestimated the number of cities needed by 40%. However, the concept of having many cities of a manageable size is a major contrast to the megacities that have emerged in their stead.

We come back to the question: What is the right size for the Human Hive? In a VUCA world where the impact of our city sizes is having negative effects that have perpetrated climate change, pandemic spread and racial divides, it is time that we humans dare to talk about the undiscussable topic of right-sizing our human hives.

References:

Freeman, J. 2016. Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World . Sounds True; Reprint edition.