This is a picture of the world’s oldest social platform.

Actually it’s a picture of a frame of bees and comb from one of my beehives and it’s only about two years old. Honeybees have been around for about 185 million years and have clearly created a very successful and complex social structure of mutual interdependence on this platform. There are many lessons that bees can teach us about community (and even democracy) But let me tell you a story of what Queen Victoria (for that is what I named her) did in May and how you should expect the same thing to happen to your community…if you’re lucky. By the way, you can see her in that picture. She’s the big one.

Vicky had been doing her job well. She really only has one: she’s an egg machine. Contrary to popular belief, bees don’t operate on a Medieval Monarchical system. Her life is more that of a slave. She lays about 1500 eggs a day until she’s exhausted and dies. Her doing her onerous job well, plus a mild winter and warm spring meant that her colony was growing fast. I was walking towards the hive to do what is called a ‘split’. This is something a beekeeper does to prevent what actually happened when I got within ten feet of the hive: they swarmed.

In a way I was lucky. It’s rare to see one happen. It’s an awe-inspiring and slightly frightening sight to see 30,000 bees stream out of the hive in a writhing, noisy, black cloud. Had I come half an hour earlier, I could have prevented my loss of those bees and my favorite queen. So I simultaneously cursed my extra time in bed and cooed in wonder at the sight. Below is picture of them swarming out of the hive.

Swarming is a perfectly natural thing for bees to do. In spring, if a colony is growing fast, it will decide (we’re not quite sure how) to subdivide and thus increase the amount of bees and colonies in the world.

So this is a story of community subdivision as a natural consequence of growth.

Back to the bees for a minute to complete their story and then I’ll attempt to draw an analogy to human communities.

The queen and half the colony will swarm out of the hive to find a new place to live. The bees left behind will collectively say to themselves “Bugger, we’ve got no queen!” (or something like that) and immediately make royal jelly to give to some of the eggs and thus make a new queen in about a fortnight. Or, more likely, the colony will have prepared in advance and have already grown some new queens in preparation for the old queen to leave.

Here’s a picture of the cluster they made thirty feet above the original hive in a tree. This is just a temporary place where they hang out for a day or two while the scout bees find potential new homes (your garage wall or a hollow tree). They will all vote on the best one and fly off in a big cloud to start over in their new hive.

So what’s this have to say about human communities? What is likely to happen if your community grows is there will come a point when it simply gets too big. Meaning that it will have grown beyond the point where people feel they know everyone, beyond the point where they feel such a bond with each other that there’s a close identification with the group. What nearly always happens is that the original group has grown so large that people will want to maintain the sense of intimacy they enjoyed so much at the beginning and so will break off and create their own, smaller groups.

Another reason and way that large and growing communities spawn is that breakaways will form that more narrowly satisfy the needs of its now many and diverse members. For example, the largest Meetup in the world is the one started by Meetup’s CEO. Scott started the NY Tech Meetup with about six other people about a decade ago. There are now 25,000 members in NY alone and many others around the world. At that size, it can’t really be called a community any more. How can you know and feel an intimate bond with twenty five thousand of your best friends?

However, it’s spawned over six hundred other NY Tech Meetups that cater to more specific needs. There’s a NYTech Video Meetup, a NY Mobile Meetup and even a NY Jewish Tech Meetup. The members have mostly remained in the original Meetup to keep in touch with the NY Tech scene, but have come to depend much more on the smaller children of the original for information, friendship, connections and even future business partners. I’m working with a healthcare community platform right now where exactly the same thing has happened. The Cancer community has spawned the Breast Cancer group, the Carers of Cancer Patients group and so on that enable a feeling of intimacy and belonging to a group of others with almost exactly the same needs.

The trick is to do what I didn’t do with my bees. If want to hold on to all those members who are likely to ‘hive’ off into smaller or more specific groups, manage that act of spawning by finding interested members (maybe via a survey) and a potential leader and encouraging them to form a new sub-group under the patronage of the old. Some community platforms such as Ning enable you to form sub-groups and local groups within the original.

What I’m suggesting you do is a ‘split’. A split is when a wise and conscientious (clearly not me) beekeeper inspects his bees and notices that they’re getting a little crowded. This smart beekeeper takes five or six frames of comb that have eggs young enough for the attached bees to rear a new queen and puts them in a new hive. He now has two communities of bees instead of one…and twice the honey.

Be a smart community-keeper by anticipating the swarming instinct of your members and encourage an ‘artificial’, or managed swarm that both increases your communities, members and the needs that are satisfied… and rewards you with whatever your equivalent of extra honey may be!

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