Episode 7

Published on:

29th Nov 2023

(S6E7) The Bee's Knees: Uncovering the Secrets of Research Culture in the Hive

In our weekly Research Culture Uncovered conversations we are asking what is Research Culture and why does it matter? In this short 10 minute episode of Season 6, Emma Spary is taking a unique approach by combining her passion for research culture with an unexpected subject: bees. As a new beekeeper, Emma has been reflecting on the similarities between the culture within a beehive and the work we do to improve research culture.

What can we learn from Willow and the girls? This episode explores various aspects of the hive culture, highlighting the importance of unity, community, and support among the bees. From the role of the queen bee to the diverse responsibilities of different bees within the hive, she uncovers valuable lessons that could be applied to research culture. Join us to gain fresh insights, stimulate new thoughts, and perhaps even discover things about bees that you may not have known before.

The main points include:

  • Importance of hive culture in beekeeping.
  • Collective responsibility to create a strong colony.
  • Collective decision-making in the hive.
  • Equality of different roles and attributes.
  • Opportunities for bees to try different roles.
  • Importance of clear and detailed messages.

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Leeds Research Culture links:



Welcome to the Research Culture Uncovered podcast, where in every episode we explore what is research culture and what should it be. You'll hear thoughts and opinions from a range of contributors to help you change research culture into what you want it to be.

Emma Spary:

Hi, it's Emma, and for those of you who haven't listened to one of my Research Culture Uncovered episodes yet. I'm the head of researcher, development and Culture at the University of Leeds. My podcast episodes focus on areas of research leadership in research culture. But today I want to try something completely different. I want to take an opportunity to combine two things I'm really passionate about that's research culture and bees. And yes, you heard that right. I did say bees. I'm a relatively new beekeeper, and it's been a steep learning curve, and I've recently been getting them ready for winter and reflecting on what I've learned as part of supporting these amazing insects.

Emma Spary:

And it struck me that there are a lot of similarities between the culture in a beehive and the work we're doing in research culture. So bear with me and hopefully this will all make sense as I try and explain some of the examples from within the hive and how that might prompt questions, ideas or thinking in the work that many of us are doing to improve cultures within our institutions. It may also tell you some key facts about bees that you might not already know. So, in short, is there anything we can learn from Willow and the girls? So, I should start by saying the culture of the hive is the top priority, and every bee in the colony works to provide a strong, healthy and supportive environment that enables their hive to grow and thrive. The hive functions as one, and whilst each of the individual bees may have a different role and responsibility, they all have one focus, and that is prioritizing the strength of the colony. In fact, a well functioning hive is probably one of the best examples of a culture that is built on unity and community. It is also a supportive environment where every bee works with and supports every other bee from the moment they emerge. They have a role to play, but they are supported by their sisters to be able to do that.

Emma Spary:

I should also mention at this point that the hive is predominantly female bees, but more on that later. Now, you're probably already aware that every hive has a leader, a queen bee. My current queen is called Willow, and a lot of people think that the queen bee has all the power and control within a hive, but that's actually not the case. Willow's role is to keep the colony growing and to help set the temperament and tone within the hive. But the real power comes from the worker bees. Her worker bees will tell the queen how the hive is functioning, whether she needs to bring in more bees to the colony through laying more eggs, whether they have too many and potentially need to split, creating a swarm, and also when they need to start winding down and preparing for winter. But importantly, they also determine how long the queen stays in her role. If they feel the queen is not right for the colony, if she is responsible for a negative or an aggressive temperament, or perhaps they sense that she isn't strong enough, then they will actively work as a group to remove her and create a new queen.

Emma Spary:

So this isn't about a hierarchical structure with one person heading up a colony and making all the decisions. The hive culture has to involve every single bee in order to be successful. So the message here is clear. Willow will only stay in her role as long as she has the support and buy in from the workers, and that the culture within the hive comes from that collective colony. Within research culture, we talk a lot about equity, inequality, diversity and inclusion. And in the hive we have similar examples. The strength of the hive comes from having different bees, having different roles and different attributes or things that they are naturally good at. The bees don't seem to care how the other bees look.

Emma Spary:

They don't mind if they have one or more less stripes, or if their wings are longer or shorter, whether they're a lighter or a darker color. What binds them together is that collective responsibility to create a strong, positive colony. Occasionally, a hive may fail. It can be weakened by a loss of queen or perhaps an outbreak of an illness. And we often find that bees from these weakened hives will be welcomed into a new colony if they can show they are willing to actively contribute. They will often bring gifts of honey or pollen with them to show their willingness to be part of the new hive. And every bee in the colony has an equal opportunity to contribute and develop within their hive. I suppose the only role they cannot have is the queen.

Emma Spary:

Now, I mentioned earlier on that the majority of the bees in the hive are female. So I think it's also worth noting that bees are not great on gender differences. And this is an example where we are clearly different. The males are only in a hive to aid reproduction, and once that job is done, they get a bit of a raw deal and they are evicted from the hive. So it's definitely not something I'm saying we should adopt. The next comparison is around career progression, and you may be thinking, what career progression exists for bees? Well, every bee in the hive has a specific role to fulfill, and these roles change as the bees get older. So there is a very natural career progression for each bee. They start as a cleaner bee, cleaning the cell that they've just emerged from, ready for the next egg to be laid and then progress to become a nurse bee, looking after the eggs by feeding them and also looking after the newly emerged bees.

Emma Spary:

After a while, they will progress to what I call kitchen bees, packing and storing nectar and pollen that's being brought into the hive. They can then progress to be a builder bee, creating that beautiful honeycomb structure that you often see that is essential for eggs to be laid in and food to be stored in. They can then progress to become a guard bee charged with protecting the hive from aggressors and sloppy beekeepers. And finally, they can progress to become a forager off out into the wide world to collect pollen and nectar to feed their hive. None of these roles are seen as being more or less important than any other. Each one is equally recognized as an essential part of a functioning hive. I mentioned that new bees are supported by their sisters. A newly emerged bee has no idea what the culture of their environment is, but they're very closely tended to by the nurse bees who have learned the culture of the hive and passed down this critical information and knowledge.

Emma Spary:

We could call this a perfect example of bee mentoring. Not every bee will do every single job. They will often find that they are good in one area and they may stick to doing that job for the duration of their life. But what is really important is that they get an opportunity to try these different roles to see where they might make the most difference. So there's certainly a lot we can learn from this about the need to have clear progression, possibilities, bee mentoring, and also not forcing people into roles that aren't going to be a good fit for them. At the height of summer, there can be 40,000 bees in a hive, all working to achieve one common goal. So, as you can probably imagine, this requires excellent communication. Communication is such an important part of the hive, whether it's communication between the workers and the queen, communication between the workers in each of those roles.

Emma Spary:

I've just mentioned communication from the guard bees to alert the hive of a potential threat, or communication from foragers to tell other foragers where the best sources of food can be found. This one you might have heard referred to as the Waggle dance. Without this clear communication, the hive simply wouldn't survive. The messages need to be quick, clear, but with enough detail so that those involved know exactly what to expect and what is needed from them. One of the key tools we have as a beekeeper is a smoker, as smoke helps to mask some of the pheromone signals from the guard bees and disrupts those communication channels within the hive, helping to keep the colony calm as you inspect them. And I know from experience that being covered in guard bee attack pheromone is not pleasant. I'm very lucky to have not been stung so far. But being pelted by angry bees is not something I enjoy.

Emma Spary:

So I think the key message here is that communication is important, not only to keep people informed, but also to let them know when they're not needed, and this can prevent additional work and also helps to avoid confusion and mistrust. One of the things we hear in Research Culture quite a lot is that if people don't know what's going on, they either assume it isn't happening or it's something that's being hidden from them. Now, obviously there are things I haven't been able to cover here. Bees aren't so great at engaging in open research, and I'm not really sure what they do in terms of reward and recognition. But I hope this has given you something to think about, stimulated questions or ideas or, failing that, just given you something to smile about. I would really love to hear from you where you think similarities might exist, if there's anything I've missed, or if you're interested in becoming a beekeeper. I'd also really like to know how this episode has landed, so please do leave a comment and we'll get back to you. But that's it for this episode, covering two of my favorite things research Culture and the bees.


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About the Podcast

Research Culture Uncovered
Changing Research Culture through conversations
At the University of Leeds, we believe that all members of our research community play a crucial role in developing and promoting a positive and inclusive research culture. Across the globe, the urgent need for a better Research Culture in Higher Education is widely accepted – but how do you make it happen? This weekly podcast focuses on our ideas, approaches and learning as we contribute to the University's attempt to create a Research Culture in which everyone can thrive. Whether you undertake, lead, fund or benefit from research - these are the conversations to listen to if you want to explore what a positive Research Culture is and why it matters.

Unless specified in the episode shownotes, Research Culture Uncovered © 2023 by Research Culturosity, University of Leeds is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. This license requires that reusers give credit to the creator. If you remix, adapt, or build upon the material, you must license the modified material under identical terms. Some episodes may be licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0, please check before use.

About your hosts

Emma Spary

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I moved into development after several years as an independent researcher and now lead the team providing professional and career development for all researchers and those supporting research. I am passionate about research culture and supporting people. I lead our Concordat implementation work and was part of the national Concordat writing group. I represent Leeds as a member of Researchers14, the N8PDRA group and UKRI’s Alternative Uses Group.

Taryn Bell

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I work as a Researcher Development Adviser at the University of Leeds. My focus is on career development, with a particular focus on supporting funding and fellowships. I previously worked at the University of York as their Fellowship Coordinator, developing and growing the University's community of early career fellows. Get in touch if you'd like to learn more (T.L.Bell@leeds.ac.uk)!

Katie Jones

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I am a Researcher Development and Culture Project Officer at the University of Leeds, where I lead projects within the Researcher Development and Culture Team. My role involves managing projects that enhance the development of researchers and foster a positive research culture across the University and the higher education sector.

Tony Bromley

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I've worked in the area of the development of researchers for 20 years, including at the national and international level. I was lead author of the UK sector researcher development impact framework charged with evaluating the over £20M per year investment of UK research councils in researcher development. I have convened the international Researcher Education and Development Scholarship (REDS) conference for a number of years and have published on researcher development evaluation and pedagogy. All the details are on www.tonybromley.com !! Also why not take a look at https://conferences.leeds.ac.uk/reds/

Ged Hall

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I've worked for almost 20 years in researcher development, careers guidance and academic skills development. For the last decade I've focused on the area of research impact. This has included organisational development projects and professional development for individual researchers and groups. I co-authored the Engaged for Impact Strategy and am heavily involved in its implementation, across the University of Leeds, to build a healthy impact culture. For 10 years after my PhD, I was a consultant in the utility sector, which included being broker between academia and my clients.

Ruth Winden

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After many years running my own careers consultancy business I made the transition to researcher development leading our careers provision. My background is in career coaching, facilitation and group-based coaching, and I have a special interest in cohort-based coaching programmes which help researchers manage their careers proactively and transition into any sector and role of their choice.

Nick Sheppard

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I have worked in scholarly communications for over 15 years, currently as Open Research Advisor at the University of Leeds. I am interested in effective dissemination of research through sustainable models of open access, including underlying data, and potential synergies with open education and Open Educational Resources (OER), particularly underlying technology, software and interoperability of systems.