Our Role in Honeybee Conservation: Reimagining Our Relationship to Bees


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“Having bees around is so healing. They are not rational. They don’t follow the rules, they are like love.”

- Sam Comfort

They're not quite domesticated and they're not quite feral. They’re a peaceful society whose labors benefit life. Little alchemists, we’ve been engaging with them for 3,000 years.

One beekeeper described encountering a swarm in the wild and being forever changed. Another described watching one of her bees, thirsty, landing on her finger for a drop of water. The bee buzzed back and forth in front of her, seemingly begging for a drink, until the beekeeper cupped her palms with more water. The bee drank her fill before flitting off. The mutual trust, she said, was like a communion.

Another describes the feeling of putting a hand into a hive as if putting it in a body cavity, or they might describe in detail the intoxicating scent of beehive pheromones at work as smelling “sexy”.

Awakening our senses to their lives opens up a door, like peeling off a veneer and seeing the biodiversity of life explode in your consciousness. From adaptations like chemical signatures, hexagonal honeycombs, and waggle dance communication, the world is alive with endlessly creative ways of supporting life. The beauty of it is enough to make your heart burst open.

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The insect kingdom evolved 270 million years ago. When flowering plants erupted onto the scene, bees evolved alongside them. Flowers created enticing scents for the bees; volatile molecular signatures borne on the air, so bees could navigate towards the flowers to spread their pollen, a reproduction strategy that evolved long before we came onto the scene.

Bees play a vital role in pollination of a large amount of our food. In a very real way our food chain depends on the labor of bees to sustain human life. We need them. We are deeply intertwined with bees in a multi species relationship that cannot be disentangled (1). They are the elder species who came before us, on whom we depend.

After all, from algae to lichen to fungi to flowering plants to animals to us, life is begotten in a web of relationship. From the microbes in the soil to the pollinators of our food, our life made possible by a living, breathing web of connections; our plant and animal kin.

Honeybees could serve as a conduit of entry, a point of reconnection into the world of other species. After all, is there any other creature from the insect kingdom whom we have quite as harmonious a relationship?

Beekeepers stand in close witness to the lives of bees, and in the process develop an ethos of responsibility towards them.

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Yet as essential as honeybees are, as we saw in our beekeeping blog post part 1, the model of industrial farming is causing honeybee decline on a large scale. Practices of pesticide and monoculture use and the dominion of industry and chemical technology over farmland, water, soil, and air, is leading to consequences we may not want.

in response to the colony collapse disorder ( CCD) crisis, commercial almond crop growers are looking at technologically advanced ways of pollinating, including robotic bees. This solution, in which we continue on the current logical path and put all our eggs in the technological basket, may not solve the true problem of declining fertility, which may be complex beyond our control. Perhaps the solution we are looking for could be found, instead, in the natural limits of cycles that nature presents us with.

It’s worth asking, what does our lack of interspecies relations say about us as a culture? (2)

We are the inheritors of a cultural legacy of superiority over the “rest” of the animal kingdom. It’s us, and them. But what if what defines Homo sapiens is how we engage with the others?

Since bees are so entangled with our everyday lives and bodies, from our food and agriculture to the use of pollen and honey for health, they physically rupture the line between us and them (3). In this way, the bee can challenge us, in theory and practice, to reconsider the “natural hierarchical order implied within notions of the animal kingdom and humankind.”

As Donna Harry suggests, if we examine our own genealogy and deeply consider how we are indeed a “tangled species” coming to being while inextricably linked with other species, we may figure ways out of the thinking that has limited our practices (4). “Instead of insisting we are superior to bees and therefore free to exploit them, we could ask how humans have emerged in collaboration with bees.”

Rather than viewing ourselves as the apex, the crown of creation, we could think of ourselves as the center of a web. Instead of ruling with mastery at the top, we could envision our connectivity as a spiral, an evolutionary force propelling life to take form in increasingly complex organisms; our abilities underpinned by standing on the shoulders of our giants.

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So what might it look like to have an ethical practice towards bees?

Ethical engagement involves considering the bees’ health and well being; to engage with bees in a way in which they are not taken for granted as an infinite natural resource. To reorient honeybees in relation to humans, not as dispensable insects but as an extremely important species that must be protected, just as trees have begun to be protected from deforestation.

We could revere the bees' work, we could find divinity in our connections to other species, and walk on the Earth as if we are walking through a miracle because in a very real way, we are!

Farmer poet Wendell Berry described the environmental crisis as a spiritual one. In his latest essay, The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age”, he criticized our current economy as seeming to possess the goal of human uselessness- a race to replace humans with robots. The word prodigal, otherwise known as waste, or lavishness, is what Berry believes to be the underpinning of our current culture, and the ruin of it. He spoke at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future about what he believes an authentic land economy would look like. "Good work goes beyond production," he said. The present economy, he explained, is rife with incentives that favor bad work. The consequence of this system is that we waste fertility. The land, if treated well, will give us so much, but we squander it, sometimes against our better judgement, because the current economy favors waste.

In contrast, an authentic land economy would protect what is good, and begins with kindness. "It must involve creaturely affection and care," he said. It would acknowledge our dependence on nature and our dependence on the natural world, and it would be built from the ground up, specific to the place in which it exists. A land economy would protect us against surplus and overproduction. The concept of limitlessness is a fantasy, and so is the notion that we can have limitless economic growth.

Berry says, “If it is unrealistic to expect a bad economy to try to become a good one, then we must go to work to build a good economy.” Since we are all implicated in the economy of destruction, only by revolutionizing our domestic lives can we expect a different system to emerge (5).

Arising out of this sense of the interdependence of nature's economy and human economy is the theory of “Earth Jurisprudence”. Coined by another Berry, the cultural historian, poet and theologian Thomas Berry, it recognizes the Earth has limits and that her many gifts, such as water, minerals, land, biodiversity, are finite. It says that the universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be used (6).

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The earth community and all the beings have fundamental rights, including the right to exist, to have a habitat, and to participate in the evolution of the community. While we may have mastery, human rights do not cancel out the right of other beings to exist. Human systems of governance, legal, political, and economic, must recognize all members of the earth community as subjects before the law. In this sense, Earth is the primary giver of law, human law is a derivative (7).

Thomas Berry considered Earth as the primary source of law, and reminded us that for most of human history, cultures around the world have conceived law in this way. Traditional societies derived their ethics, customary laws and governance systems from the life governing laws of the Earth. This is rooted in the understanding that disturbing the dynamic equilibrium which sustains the conditions for life, would ultimately lead to chaos (8). Therefore we have a duty of care, to maintain the integrity of the whole earth community for future generations.

As Noam Chomsky has said, the hope for the future lies in indigenous wisdom.

Earth Jurisprudence is a philosophy, a way of seeing and relating to the living world out of which we have evolved, with respect and humility. It enables us to recognize that the dominant assumption underpinning the industrial growth model – that humans are superior and can extract from life endlessly – is both flawed and dangerous (9).

"We must generalize the concept of infrastructure so that intelligent management of the Earth is seen as the ultimate systems problem," said Professor Patrick Jaillet in his talk on A Civil and Environmental Engineering Department for MIT for the 21st Century. "MIT CEE has the potential to be the steward and to lead other engineering professionals in that direction... Nothing short of a paradigm shift is needed to address the world's complex societal problems.”

Many projects governed by principles of Earth Jurisprudence are popping up around the world. One example of such a project, slowly incorporating earth jurisprudence into law, is the Pollinator Friendly Solar Act, signed by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. Its the first legislation of its kind that encourages standards for managing grasses and wildflowers for pollinators. Another example is The Xerces Society Pollinator Conservation, an organization working to conserve pollinators by providing education on pollinator friendly plants and practices. And as you can see in this international research project Wild Law: Is there any evidence of earth jurisprudence in existing law and practice? many models of earth jurisprudence are being enacted around the world, as people rise to steward and protect.

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The honeybee hive, to this end, could serve as a beacon for how we can reorient our own domestic lives to live in accordance with principles of earth jurisprudence.

A honeybee hive is a unique society; it’s eusocial, which, evolutionary speaking, is rare. Not following the generally accepted “survival of the fittest” evolutionary model, honey bees confound.The hive mind it’s a super-organism, the nurses, drones, and workers give up mating to work for the good of the colony.

A bee colony is considered one organism. It is said that honeybee colonies have reproduced when the colony becomes robust enough to split in two and swarm, creating a second colony.

Bees have the amazing ability relate to one another and fly through space in great numbers of thousands. They collectively maneuver to the same place, staying in a moving, writhing, and buzzing collective. Once considered an oracle and prophecy, it’s awe inspiring to watch. Relation is the rule in swarms, rather than a centralized ruler. In swarms, there is no individual decision maker; instead there is a collectivity defined by relationally.

In a way, the planet and all of us on it is like a giant hive, all related. All, ultimately, connected as one. Philosopher Rudolph Steiner interpreted a thriving honeybee hive as permeated with life based on love (10). Steiner thought that there was an unconscious wisdom in the hive that we could learn from. The bees could provide us with a threshold of sorts, an awakening consciousness to our deep lasting entanglement to the web of life.

To choose to love them, to think of their well being, brings us a little more into harmony with the consciousness of Earth; palpably feeling the incalculable wealth of a robust ecosystem, underpinning all other wealth.

Divine interconnectedness is our birthright; stewardship our duty.

Protecting our kin, acting as citizens of the Earth, we can work for the benefit of the whole, bypassing our individual needs for a moment. One person’s actions are a drop in a bucket, but a million little flower pots creates a whole new system. After all, one doesn't plant an orchard for immediate gratification. We do this for each other, for our grandchildren, and for other species, in order to create a future permeated by love and care, just like the sweetly divine honeybee.

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Practical Steps to Ethically Engage with Honeybees

1. Plant a Bee Flower Garden
2. Only Buy Responsibly Produced Honey 3. Demand an End to Pesticide Use

Resources for Citizen Action:

Enhancing Habitat for Bees: https://xerces.org/enhancing-habitat-for-native-bees/

US Fish and Wildlife Service Newsletter on Alaskan Pollinator Gardens: https://www.fws.gov/pollinators/pdfs/Pollinatorgarden%20fact%20sheet-AK-FINAL.pdf

Beepocalypse Inspired Activism: https://www.beeculture.com/beepocalypse-inspired- activism/

The Pollination Project: https://thepollinationproject.org/

1 - 4:
Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kozut, Buzz, Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee ( New

York: New York University Press, 2013).

5: Wendell Berry, “Wendell Berry on Farming, Arts, Limits, and Waste,” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future, 2016, https://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable- future/news-room/dodge_lecture/wendell-berry.html (accessed Jan 12, 2019).

6. Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999).

7-9. Thomas Berry, “Earth Jurisprudence Principles and Story of Origin”, Gaia Foundation, 2009, https://www.gaiafoundation.org/what-we-do/earth-jurisprudence/story-of-origin- growing-an-earth-jurisprudence-movement/ (accessed Jan 12, 2019).

10. Rudolph Steiner, Bees: Lectures by Rudolf Steiner, translated by Thomas Braatz (Barrington, Mass.: Anthroposophic Press, 1998).