The Queen Bee and the Cougar: From Insult to Empowerment

I’ve been thinking about how we insult women as they age by comparing them to animals. When I was younger, they called me a tease if the boys thought me attractive. Now that I’m middle aged, they call me cougar. When I was little, they called me bossy for asserting myself or asking that my needs be met. Now that I’m middle aged, they call me the queen bee. 

My instinct is to cringe, the title queen bee is after all, an insult. The queen is seen as selfish, demanding, entitled, and manipulative. People imagine a bee, sitting on a throne, golden crown on her head sipping propolis, while throngs of workers toil all day to keep the hive running. This however, is a profane assessment, and couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, the queen bee is one of the most selfless creatures on Earth, whose entire life is dedicated to the successful propagation of her species.

Life in the hive depends entirely on the fidelity of the queen. It is true that there is only one of her kind, and she is completely unique amongst her sisters, yet by her very nature, she is the one being in the hive that can never change her mind, never stop working and never decide to turn her back on her leadership role. If she asserts any independence, the entire hive will fail. Bees can’t live without their queen.

She is the organizing principle. Everyone follows her orders, yet she rules with a natural wisdom. She knows exactly how many workers are needed for each season, and how many drones will keep the hive warm. With a signal, she assigns tasks with precision and the workers follow her wisdom with their own loyalty. In this way, she is bossy, but in her bossiness, the rest of the hive can relax and truly become one. Everything is taken care of. Every task is held, because the queen holds the hive as one entity, one mind. The hive shows us that many hands are needed in order for bees to live out their role on Earth as pollinators.

The queen bee serves ceaselessly, sometimes as long as five years, with her eyes always on the prize. She doesn’t get a day off. She isn’t sitting on a throne. Instead she is laying eggs, all day, and instructing the hive to ensure that those eggs grow to adulthood. Her sole focus is on procreation and fertility so that the hive might live forever.

Unlike the workers, the queen rarely leaves the hive, once after she’s born in order to mate with the drones, and then only when she has been successful and produced enough bees that the hive needs to split. The queen bee never frolics among the flowers, nor feels the summer sun’s kiss. She can’t—to do so would be an act of treason against those she was born to protect.

Yes, she’s the only one. Yes, she’s in charge. Yet the queen bee isn’t selfish, rather she’s completely at service to the greater good, the whole, the all. I think she’s admirable, and rather than cringe at the comparison, which is often an insult, I think it’s time to accept it, for the path of the queen bee is one who leads through service, without question. I would love to be so selfless and her path is one worth pursuing.

In our complex world, we need more queen bees, not less, dedicating their lives to helping us navigate the serious problems of our time.

So claim it ladies, and aspire to become a queen bee as she truly is—an important part of the ecosystem in which we live. Which leads me to the other animal insult thrown at middle-aged women—cougar—usually as a means to belittle the fact that she has remained sexual past her prime. You know, she actually enjoys sex even though she’s no longer a maiden and her kids are older? (When I googled the word cougar, the first link is one to a dating website for women seeking younger men.)

Again, there is some wisdom in the profane and even though the term is used to cut women down, like the queen bee, the world is in need of this sort of feminine leadership. Just like the queen of the hive, the cougar is the queen of the forest. As the apex predator, the cougar plays a pivotal and critical role in maintaining biodiversity in many different ecosystems. By hunting deer and wild boar, the cougar keeps the herbivore population balanced, ensuring that over-grazing doesn’t occur. As an example, a recent study on the trophic decline of Zion National Park showed that a reduction in cougars led to the overpopulation of deer, which led to the destruction of key plant species, namely the cottonwood tree, which led to not only erosion along the creeks and streams (the trees were no longer there to keep the soil in check) but also the loss of habitat for many insects which fed bird species, which are also now in decline.

Like the queen bee, the cougar keeps the ecosystem in order. Should she be envied for her position? Should she be killed off because she bothers the livestock? Should she be seen as a danger to the order of humanity?

Middle aged women are needed to reorganize a society that has lost its way. One where 50% of our children live in poverty, where health care sends many into debt, where people are left without shelter in the rain and cold. Our human society is in need of strong, feminine leadership. Middle age is a time when a woman is not only wise with years, but she also has more time to serve the whole because the needs of her own family are waning. She can make the effort to grow her talents and assert her power in a larger context.

Beware, there is a price to pay. If you’re too bossy, you’re the queen bee. If you’re too sexy, you’re the cougar. But maybe it means you’re doing something right? Turn the insult upside down and go deeper, and you just might find that both of those animals represent exactly what is needed at this time in history. For to become either is to lead with service, a trait that is sorely lacking in our world, from the boardroom to the White House.

Expect people to strike back. Look at how we fear the swarming hive and do all we can to kill the bees. The same goes for the cougar, who is often hunted by the human because she dares to feed on their penned-in livestock. The queen bee and the cougar live according to different rules, and often pay dearly for it. Yet without them, the natural world could not survive.

So be a queen bee, or a cougar, or both, without shame. For they are beautiful, strong, selfless and completely necessary in the web of life.