Gift from the Bees
[Script for parting performance presented by Sumugan Sivanesan at ZK/U, 25 September 2014]
Hello and welcome to our Openhaus. All of us at ZK/U have been busily anticipating this evening’s schedule, and I would like to begin the tour by drawing your attention to those that might have been the busiest of us all, but have now retired for the evening—the Moabees. Over the summer there has been some buzz around die Bienen in the city and the extent to which Bienenvolke are appearing in each and every kiez. It seems that reports of scores of dead and disappearing bees over the last few years have revived our interest in these long-time cultural companions, calling attention to the ways in which we all profit from their presence.
The phrase ‘robbing the bees’ is often used to describe the task of collecting honey from beehives. Honey may well be sought after as a ‘nectar of the gods’, but is in the first instance food made by and for bees from the nectar they collect from flowers. Recently, Tessa and I were talking to a beekeeper who described the honey she had extracted as ‘a gift from the bees’. This Imkerin said that the bees permitted her to take their honey as long as she agreed to pass it on. She gives jars of honey to friends and relatives, and to tradespeople as a reward for a job well done. Such gifts spotlight the interplay of goodwill and obligations that bind us to one another and are in excess of more rational economic relations.
Humans have harvested honey and cultivated bees since the earliest recorded civilisations, however for many of today’s beekeepers honey is simply a ‘sweet bonus’, a byproduct of the crucial pollination services that these and other insects provide. In the current eco-cultural climate bees are often portrayed as a benevolent species—‘the good bee’ brings the world into abundance and maintains the conditions on this planet in which we thrive. If we believe that by improving the lives of bees we also improve our own, then what kind of lifeworlds would emerge if we pegged our progress to bees?
Berlin has a reputation as a bee capital. In the past, the city’s beekeepers lobbied for the planting of certain trees that would provide food for bees… their success can be read in street names such as Unter den Linden, Birkenstrasse and Kastanienallee. More recently installing hives atop significant buildings such as the Abgeordnetenhaus, the Berlin Opera and of course right here at ZK/U, not only locates bees in the heart of the city but brings them into our social consciousness. Today European beekeepers have been instrumental in having particular insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, banned in the EU, reducing the mortality rates of bees and wilfully keeping the prospect of a world without bees at bay… as one local beekeeper puts it, ‘intervening politically on behalf of the bees’.
Honeybees are social beings capable of collective decision-making and action. They are creatures of extraordinary strength and endurance that give their lives for the hive and are often used to symbolise patriotism and hard work. The sociability of bees has been read as a metaphor for both social collectivism and capitalist industrialism, as well as to argue for and against the value of individualism. Our fascination with bees has inspired the sciences, arts and philosophy, so might a bee-led social turn, in turn shape our wellbeing?
Whilst it is unlikely that if all the bees of the world suddenly died, we would soon follow, such a scenario would spell catastrophe for both our habitats and industries. Little is known about the effects of bees on the systems that support arable land, but we can be sure that yields of, say, almonds in California or coffee in Costa Rica would collapse overnight. As the once well-stocked shelves in our food halles and supermarkets began to empty out, would ideas that we associate with bees, such as social cohesion and cooperation, also disappear? As a consequence, imagine if organised and once industrious workers arose as a swarm of vengeful killers!
A principle of classical economics known as Jean-Baptist Say’s law states that ‘supply creates its own demand.’ According to this logic, supply precedes demand and seeds desire. Now into my last week at ZK/U, and with Tessa already back in Sydney, I find myself with an over supply of raw local honey—more than I could possibly consume before I too must leave. As a parting gesture and in the spirit of ebullience and abundance Tessa and I would like to pass this bounty on to you. Consider it a gift; from ourselves and the beekeepers, and by extension a gift from the bees.
Video: Faraz Anoushahpour