‘The god of the bees is the future’ – Maurice Maeterlinck (1901) The Life of the Bee.
Bees and humans share a closely intertwined genealogy. So interconnected have they been for much of human history that each species is difficult to imagine apart from its enduring association with the other. Humans have shaped bees, especially in the modern era, through selective breeding, intercontinental transportation and changing beekeeping practices; but bees have also shaped humans, having played significant roles in human food production, material culture and cultural history, and also in major world-historical events such as the European colonial settling of the Americas; for the Native Americans this was synonymous with the relentless westward spread of the honey bee, or Apis Mellifera. It is no mere rhetorical flourish then, to say that these species have been co-productive, or cross-pollinating.
Honeybees in particular have been a hugely important presence in Western societies since Ancient times. Prior to the emergence of the international trade in sugar in the
early modern period, honeybees were the source of the primary sweetener in the European diet, and mead – made from fermented honey – was the staple alcoholic beverage for all but the most affluent, being much cheaper than the imported wine that was the main alternative. Meanwhile beeswax with its unusually high melting-point was vitally important for making candles, a key source of artificial light in the pre-industrial age. Although today the importance of candles has been much diminished by electricity, and sugar has largely displaced honey as the standard sweetener, yet beeswax is still used as an ingredient in products as diverse as polishes, electrical tranducers and cosmetics, while honey continues to be a significant commodity and is now widely marketed as a luxury ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ product.
Far more important than beeswax and honey production however is the crucial role of bees as vectors in plant pollination. Honeybees are particularly industrious pollinators as well as being prodigious honey producers, but other species such as bumblebees also play important roles in pollination. It is estimated that around a third of the human diet depends upon insect-pollinated plants, with bees the major pollinators. This makes bees a vital part of the agricultural economy, with the annual monetary value of their ‘pollination services’ being estimated at around £440 million in the UK and £220 billion globally. Underpinning such abstract monetary values is the very real role of bees as key agents of fertility in the ecosystem, much of which would collapse without the constant labour of bees. Einstein is reputed to have said that if bees were to disappear from the Earth, then humans would have only 4 years left. In fact Einstein probably never said this, but the persistence of this particular misattribution underlines the popularity of the notion that bees serve as something like the canary in the coal mine for the overall health of the eco-system. This is not an unfounded idea, as few species are quite so sensitively calibrated to their environment as bees.
This helps to explain why the phenomenon that some have dubbed ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ has caused such alarm, not only for apiarists and environmentalists, but also among farmers, governments and scientific institutions. First coined in the US in 2006 to refer to the phenomenon of sudden, dramatic and unexplained colony losses, often involving the overnight disappearance of vast numbers of bees without a trace, CCD has been at the centre of a controversial international debate between beekeepers, farmers, pesticide companies, green groups and entomologists, with different interested parties preferring different proposed explanations for the collapse in bee numbers. The candidates include the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides believed to detrimentally affect the apian nervous system; the unstoppable progress of the parasitic varroa mite and associated viruses introduced into vulnerable honeybee populations by the transcontinental trade in bees; loss of genetic diversity due to poor breeding practices favoured by some commercial breeders; over-intensive exploitation of honeybees in monocultural commercial pollination leading to intolerable stresses on that species and the crowding out of native pollinators; the increasing frequency of unseasonal weather associated with climate change affecting the reproductive and foraging cycles of bee colonies; and changing landscapes involving the loss of areas of diverse flora such as wildflower meadows that play a vital role in sustaining native bee populations. So far none of these has emerged as an entirely convincing candidate for a sole causal explanation, and it seems likely that all or many of these factors may contribute to the phenomenon of CCD. What is certain is that if the decline in bee numbers continues apace, we can bid farewell to life as we know it.
Being of such material and ecological importance to human societies, it is perhaps unsurprising that bees have also played a very significant and persistent role in human cultures, as a potent and recurring symbol in human systems of meaning and representation through history. From Greek mythology to Cold War ‘killer bee’ horror movies, bees have acquired a remarkably diverse and often quite contradictory set of associations which have changed and alternated through time. Bees have been used by humans not just for their honey, beeswax and pollination, but as a means to think about the order of nature, human nature and human society. In this sense bees have been a remarkably polysemous object onto which we have projected our changing views of ourselves and our societies. Competing visions of ‘bee society’ have involved attempts to promote and legitimise social and political ideas of the time, from absolutist monarchy to civic responsibility, and from the puritanical work ethic to a collectivism seen variously as enlightened, altruistic, obedient or mindless, always by showing how such creeds are ostensibly rooted in the ‘natural order’ manifest in the micro-society of the bee colony. Because in the complex social organisation of their colonies they provide a peerless symbolic universe for thinking about the relationship between not just nature and society but the individual and the collective, bees have been sociological like no other insect; indeed, like no other animal. This project thinks through such ‘bee sociology’ in the context of a less human-centred understanding of the human-animal relations and socio-environmental contours of beekeeping.
Many of the misconceptions concerning the social organisation and biology of bees that sustained some of the enduring sociopolitical visions of apian life have been dispelled by modern scientific entomology. The longstanding assumption that the Queen was in fact a male ‘King’ Bee for example, and that the worker bees were also male, was finally dispelled in England in 1609, and with it the easy ideological homology between the bee colony and the naturalised patriarchal order. Similarly, centuries of speculation on the nature of bee communication and navigation were put to rest in 1953 when Karl Von Frisch was able to unlock the secret of the ‘waggle dance’ as an extraordinary means for successful foragers returning to the hive to convey the precise spatial coordinates of a source of nectar and pollen.
Growing scientific knowledge of apian life and social organisation has by no means meant the end of the remarkable symbolic and discursive potency of bees however, which continues to thrive not just in entomology itself but in the multiple associations of bees with such ideas as good government and social responsibility, ecological sustainability, business co-operation and civic-minded commercial activity. These apian discourses have both fuelled and fed-off a surge in hobbyist beekeeping, especially in urban areas, with the enthusiasm for bees spreading to new social groups and developing in association with the green, organic and local food movement. Indeed, as bees themselves continue to suffer from an ongoing and ominous decline in numbers that remains as yet unexplained, their social and cultural appeal has certainly not declined in recent years; on the contrary, the buzz about bees looks set to grow only louder. This project explores the social significance of the buzz, it’s multiple meanings, and what lies behind its resonance.
© Richie Nimmo 2013.