Thinking with Bees

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Bees have received a lot of attention over the last five years. You could say they’ve become media darlings, of sorts. The “disappearance” of 30 billion honeybees—one quarter of the population in the northern hemisphere—from hives in North America and Europe in the spring of 2007, and ongoing losses in springs since, has raised very real fears about the future of agriculture as we know it. Honeybees and their plight, and their vital connections with human economies, have captured and held the public interest.

Bees and beekeeping, as a result, are decidely “in.” “Michelle Obama’s bees will be ready for spring,” the US News’ Washington Whispers column reported in the spring of 2010. Buckingham Palace, the Tate Modern, Vancouver’s City Hall, and Toronto’s Royal York hotel have all installed rooftop or (isolated) garden hives in recent years. Urban beekeeping has become something of a rage: in the UK, beekeepers’ associations are struggling to keep up with burgeoning requests for new memberships, and urban beekeeping cooperatives have sprung up in Toronto and other centres to support neophyte enthusiasts.

In the history of human relationships with insects, bees have always fared better than their six-legged counterparts in other familiae. Like other animals we have empathized with in past, bees display characteristics we value in ourselves: their industriousness and meticulous hygiene, their elaborate rituals of communication, their intolerance of intruders, and their discerning sense of “beauty”—of smell, sight, and taste—in selecting sources of nectar and pollen have all been celebrated by bee enthusiasts in different periods and places, and to different ends. (This in addition, of course, to their vital economic role as producers and pollinators). Bees—unlike wasps, for those of us who insist on this distinction—“mean well;” their sting is their end (barbed stingers cannot pull free from our thick mammalian skin, as they can from insect bodies); even their soft, furry bodies have attracted us as somehow less alien than other insect species.

As I completed my dissertation on Toronto’s Don River Valley in the spring of 2010 and began to think about future projects, I, too, found myself caught up in this fascination with bees and the perils they faced. I began to think about bees, and take new notice of bees around me. I read voraciously about the current crisis in honeybee health, about the history of beekeeping, and the cultural history of bees and bee social organization as metaphors for human societies. (What a shock was that discovery that the “leader” of the bees was in fact, female). I’d been stung (not bitten, note) by “bee fever.”

What fascinated me most was not the technological history of beekeeping, or even the bees themselves and their intricate and purposeful behaviours. Instead it was the idea of “bee forage”: the lands, and the plant species, upon which honeybees depend for their survival, and their productivity. Honeybees, unlike other domesticated animals of the barnyard, cannot be contained to a designated “pasture.” Their foraging flights range as far as six kilometres from the hive, and in them, they face risks that are difficult for their keepers to mitigate. A neighbouring field sprayed with pesticides, for example, can wipe out a colony of bees. Monoculture crops pose other risks, as a number of recent studies have shown, in failing to provide a diversity of food sources for bee nutrition. Domesticated honeybees released into a landscape of almond trees, or orange groves, or blueberries—and little else for miles around—face a diet impoverished of diversity. (That such monoculture plantations tend to flower all at one time, and then finish, spells an even worse fate for native bee species in these industrial landscapes.) Small breaks in the landscape—a hedgerow, a ditch seeded with wildflowers—take on new significance from this perspective. The “bee problem” is in this sense a problem of the commons: even if the land over which they forage is mostly private, the difficulty of containing the bees themselves, and the degree of cooperation required among landowners to manage the risks they face, demands a certain logic of the commons.

Bees had become, in a sense, a “way in” to larger questions about land use. They were good to think with. How, I began to wonder, did the industrialization of agriculture in the second half of the twentieth century, with its shift toward monoculture crops, heavy chemical inputs, and vast farm operations, affect bees and their keepers? How did individual beekeepers and local beekeeper associations respond to these changes? What strategies or adaptations did they employ to protect and provision their bees, and to support their businesses? How uniform were these land use changes in different agricultural regions, and how significant were public lands and undeveloped spaces to the success of beekeeping operations?

I knew from my research on the Don Valley that “difficult to develop” places like the valley had long been a boon to urban beekeepers. Historical records referenced well-established beekeeping operations on the western edges of the valley in the late nineteenth century. Valley cottager and conservationist Charles Sauriol was an avid apiarist from the 1940s-60s; his “bee stories” included references to “bee tree” hunters in the early 1800s, and valley squatters in the 1930s and 40s, one who tended some twenty hives along the rail right-of-way. The surge in popularity of urban beekeeping has seen the valley used once again as a swath of foraging lands for rooftop hives.

Turning these interests and rather tenuous connections into a viable project for historical research has been aided greatly by apiculture collections at the University of Guelph and at Cornell University in the US, each of which hold company records from a number of large beekeeping operations, as well as apiculture trade journals, state apiarist records, and records from local and regional beekeeping associations.

My resulting project, supported by a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Guelph, explores the roots of the current crisis in apiculture through a series of detailed, place-based studies of the intersections between beekeeping practice, land use, and ecological change in twentieth-century Ontario and New York state. An environmental history of apiculture in a part of the continent where relatively small farms (less than 100 hectares) have prevailed, the study will examine the effects of a multiplicity of factors, including shifting consumer demand for honey, rising business costs, persistent threats to honeybee health, and the emergence of new revenue sources such as pollination contracts, upon honeybees and their keepers. The goal is to produce a complex story of environmental change: at one level, a story about agricultural modernization and ecological decline; at another, an account of the persistence of the “traditional”—itself a moving target—within the “in-between” spaces of modernizing rural landscapes and changing agricultural practices.

And I hope there will be lots of honey to sample along the way.

Further reading

Eva Crane, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Rowan Jacobsen, Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis. New York: Bloomsbury US, 2008.
Douglas Whynott, Following The Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Beekeepers. 1st ed. Tarcher, 2004.
Bee Wilson (really). The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us. London: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Originally published for The Otter