After I jog each morning I hose myself off but I keep sweating as I prepare breakfast at my campfire, as indicated by the honeybees who settle on my back, arms and legs as I work. I just ignore them and try to avoid annoying them. But Wednesday one got between my legs and when I took a step a bee thought she was under attack and I got stung.

A sad thing about being stung by a honeybee is that the bee's stinger pulls from its body and the bee dies within a few hours. By stinging you, the bee is committing suicide. Therefore, from the bee's point of view, the question of whether the stinging must take place is a critical one. Stinging is not done lightly.

A lot of thinking has been done about how bees could have evolved so that individuals are programmed to give up their lives for the community's sake. To understand the answer you have to think in terms of the bee community's genetic heritage being carried by the queen, not the workers, who die without ever producing offspring. In this light, we are almost struck with a sense of injustice by seeing how expendable the workers' lives are. There's nothing democratic or even-handed here. The workers are created simply to work for the community, to sting when there's a need, and then to die.

Some serious thinkers have proposed that among such socialized insects as bees, the "individual" should be better thought of as the diffuse community of bees, not the individual bees we see at flowers. In this concept the queen is seen as like a gland secreting hormones and the workers are like corpuscles in the human circulatory system roaming about doing whatever the queen's hormones dictate. Is there really a rule in nature that a body has to be in one place -- that hormones must be transported in veins instead of on wings and six legs? We have examples of distinct species merging to form completely new life forms (fungi and algae merging to form lichens), so why can't the opposite be true, one thing manifesting itself as a community?

For me these insights are important to consider because part of the bedrock of my belief system is that I regard human beings as being no more than highly specialized mammals. In thinking like this I'm not at all belittling humans, but rather regarding other animals as much more complex, self-aware and beautiful than most people admit. Therefore, if what's spiritually important in me is my "sense of identity," my "consciousness," or my "soul," then in the diffuse honeybee consisting of the entire colony, just where is the "sense of identity," the "consciousness," or "the soul?"

Already it's known that consciousness or sense-of-identity doesn't reside in any particular cell or group of cells, or nerve or organ. Even people who lose half of their brain continue thinking and functioning as regular humans, perhaps showing only a certain "flatness" in their personalities. This thing we think of as our consciousness -- our selves -- appears to just happen, maybe as a natural consequence of there being a lot of complex electrochemical circuitry in one place -- the brain. If that's the case with bees, then how pretty it is to think of the bee soul as being focused in the hive, but diffusing outward into communities of flowers in the fields.

Of course once you start thinking in this direction, then you come face to face with Gaia -- the Earth-Ecosystem-self-awareness-complex. In other words, maybe the Earth does feel, and react, like a single living organism. Certainly a lot of what happens appears to support that idea. For example, ecosystem- destroying humans on an overpopulated Earth are analogous to germs infecting a human body. As the human body reacts to disease by producing antibodies to control the germ population, Gaia's body does the same thing as diseases, famines and wars appear among us humans.

And, beyond Gaia, the Universal self-aware complex...

So, this was the train of thought blossoming from my bee-sting. How wonderful to be a thinking human animal.