‘Killer Bee’ movies emerged as a popular strain of ‘creature feature’ films in the Cold War era of the 1960s. Films such as The Deadly Bees (1966), Genocide (1968) and The Swarm (1978) established a genre based around formulaic ‘nature’s revenge’ plot lines in which insects, often mutated in scientific experiments, escape from laboratories to attack and kill human protagonists. In The Bees (1978) swarms of mutant bees bring down military aircraft, target politicians and deliver an ecologically-driven ultimatum to the United Nations via a human interpreter. Such fantastic narratives can be read as popular cautionary tales about the modern sciences empowering humans to ‘play god’, underpinned by a Cold War fear of biological warfare and the scientific supremacy of ideological rivals. Curiously these films attribute direct agency and political action to swarms of angry, organised non-human actors, entertaining the prospect of non-human rights.
The phenomenon of disappearing bees synonymous with Colony Collapse Disorder has compelled lobby groups such as Mellifera e.V. in Germany to interfere on behalf of this ‘subaltern species’ in human affairs, resulting in a temporary ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in the EU, which is soon take effect in the US as well. In his book The Politics of Nature (2004), Bruno Latour details his vision for a collective yet-to-come of human and non-human agents that would supersede the society/nature divide upon which modern institutions are founded.
Might this most recent phase of human-bee relations provide an entry point to consider how such ‘multinatural’ political associations are actually taking shape? Furthermore, is it only in fiction that a species capable of collective decision-making and with which human cultures share a long history–and also food–could have ‘thought’ to take actions in order to change our behaviour?
Tomorrow is Open Haus again at ZKU, from 18:30. Plan Bienen will be participating by offering a behind-the-scenes sunset soirée with beesting cocktails and irregular currencies. Bring something to exchange (conversations accepted).
To call ourselves geological agents is to attribute to us a force on the same scale as that released at other times when there has been a mass extinction of species. Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History: Four Theses, 2009.
Dipesh Chakrabarty begins his essay The Climate of History: Four Theses (2009) by asking his readers to imagine ‘a future without us’, raising the prospect of human finitude as a potential (and some would say inevitable) catastrophe that appeals to a notion of human universals. The historian argues that scientific consensus regarding human induced climate change has facilitated a significant shift in our systems of knowledge. Humans who have evolved to cause significant changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, environment and ecological systems have become geological actors over recent periods of expansion and industrialisation, as put forward in the Anthropocene thesis. In doing so humans have instigated a series of ecological reactions that may potentially render the planet inhospitable for their continued advancement (and thereby suggesting the limits of capitalism). Chakrabarty lists recent droughts, cyclones, brush fires, crop failures, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, the increasing acidity of seas and damage to the food chain as some of the consequences of recent human activities and innovations. In light of such developments, Chakrabarty urges his readers to reconsider the discipline of human history, which over the course of its development occurred apart from natural history, to recognise human agency in changing the most basic physical properties of its host planet. At a public lecture delivered at Haus der Kulturen der Welt Berlin, June 2014, the influential scholar pressed for another kind of historical thinking in which nature might act as a co-author.
In her contribution to the Reaktion Books animal series, Bee (2006), Claire Preston refers to pictorial records depicting the cultivation of bees to claim that apiculture originated with the ancient Egyptians as early as 2500 BC. She continues to discuss other pre-common era records of bee cultivation and honey hunting across Europe and India, describing a significant and even symbiotic co-existence between humans and bees through the ages. Indeed bees and other pollinator species are essential to the human food chain. More than one-third of the world’s crop species, such as alfalfa, sunflower and numerous fruits and vegetables, depend on bee pollination. Furthermore, scientists estimate that animal mediated pollination is required for the reproduction of nearly 70% of the world’s flowering plants, including between 60% and 90% of wild plants.
In recent years the mass disappearance and death of worker bees from managed hives, a syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has raised awareness of the roles and challenges faced by bee populations in the industrialised world. Scientists have not been able to narrow down a single cause of CCD, rather attributing the sudden death of bee populations to multiple and interactive conditions. These include the prolonged use of insecticides and in particular neonicotinoids; new parasites and pathogens such as Varroa mite and Nosema; environmental stresses including a lack of biodiversity in monocultural farming environments; and effects of climate change such as season creep. The phenomena of CCD and the lack of accurate data about global bee populations and other pollinator species may have inspired a renewed interest in urban beekeeping and community innovations such as Open Source Beehives. Bee lobby groups, such as Mellifera e.V. in Germany, that ‘interfere’ politically on behalf of bees, have been successful in having a temporary ban placed on the use of neonicotinoids in the EU, although not yet in the US where CCD has had a greater impact.
If we posit bee colony mortality against the expansion of human populations and their geological effects, does the prospect of the extinction of the former species necessarily spell catastrophe for the latter? The artist Ally Bisshop suggests that precarious bee populations are allegorical of human finitude as both species are effectively subservient to the sun. If pitched as a contest between populations of human, bee and other heliocentric species with regards to their ability to inhabit, extract resources and manipulate their environment, Chakrabarty reminds us that the eventual decline of the human species that can be glimpsed in the death of bee populations is not ‘a crisis for the inorganic planet’ and would not spell disaster for the Earth and its most prolific matter.
What are the implications of Chakrabarty’s call for another mode of history, in which nature might be a co-author, for our own practice that concerns social relations and exchange? How are such interspecies relations translated as politics and what is the potential for non-human agency in the expanded notion of culture that Chakrabarty suggests?
Bisshop, Ally, 2014. ‘The Bees Will Tell Us’ (draft copy). Also available in Bisshop, Ally and Messih, Gemma, 2014. Eventually the Sun will Consume the Earth.
Preston, Claire, 2006. Bee. Reaktion Books, London 2006.
Here at ZK/U we have our own little colony of bees to observe, maintained by the Moabienen Mitimkern, a team of busy young beekeepers who are bringing a number of beehives and bee-related activities to the neighbourhood of Moabit, one of Berlin’s oldest and sleepier parts. There are four hives perched on top of a container out the front, including the especially calm ‘Vanilla Ice’, and ‘Rosalee’, a consolatory gift from another beekeeper who stole one of the Moabienen’s colonies whilst it was swarming (an antiquated German law entitling whoever captures a swarm to keep it..).
Yesterday we joined Elisa and Katja as they checked up on the hives and prepared a new colony for Jana, who will install them in her local Friedhof. Though the decidedly unsummery weather meant we couldn’t harvest any honey, the bees seemed happy enough.
During the week we met Anna, a beekeeper at Prinzessinnengarten, who wondered what it would be like to be a bee for a day. Karl von Frisch discovered that bees possess a ‘language’ through a series of experiments he began in the 1920s. Now scientists following in his wake are attempting to communicate with bees using robots that will ‘live’ amongst bees and with a view to influence their decision making processes and behaviour. Such propositions bring to my mind China Miéville’s science fiction Embassytown, in which humans co-habiting a planet with large insectoid hosts shift the parameters of language across both species—the story’s protagonist is a simile that functions as part of an alien language without the faculty to lie.
The RoboBee Project headed by Raul Rojas at the Freie University Berlin have developed a honeybee robot that can do a basic waggle dance. As can be seen in the segment below, these dancing bots could potentially be used to tell real bees to fly to specific locations.
Project ASSIS|bf coordinated by Dr. Thomas Schmickl of the Artificial Life Lab at the University of Graz are developing robots that will be able to communicate, adapt and evolve to ‘live’ amongst populations of bees and fish. By focusing on ‘swarm intelligence’ the project proposes to pioneer methods by which humans can interfere in animal societies in order to manage the environment. Schmickl lists various benefits of doing so, ranging from pest control to agriculture, but also considers contemporary human, social media affected society to be a social cyborg in itself. Thus, he reasons, model systems in the lab for studying mixed-societies of robots, algorithms and social organisms are crucial to understanding our own human society.
Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy recounts the the biologist’s lifelong study of honeybees. Seeley, writing in a very personable style, describes how he came to understand the hive as a collective intelligence, and the bee swarms as ‘a kind of exposed brain that hangs quietly from a tree branch’. In a blog post for the Harvard Business Review he offers what we might learn from bees’ collective decision making:
1. Remind the group’s members of their shared interests and foster mutual respect, so they work together productively. The scout bees know instinctually that their interests are aligned toward choosing the optimal home site, so they work together as a team. There are no clashing curmudgeons in a bee swarm.
2. Explore diverse solutions to the problem, to maximize the group’s likelihood of uncovering an excellent option. The scout bees search far and wide to discover a broad assortment of possible living quarters.
3. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through a frank debate. Use the power of a fair and open competition to distinguish good options from bad ones. The scout bees rely on a turbulent debate among groups supporting different options to identify a winner. Whichever group first attracts sufficient supporters wins the debate.
4. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking. By functioning as an impartial moderator rather than a proselytizing boss, a leader enables his group to use its combined knowledge and brainpower. The scout bees have no dominating leader and so can take a broad and deep look at their options.
5. Balance interdependence (information sharing) and independence (absence of peer pressure) among the group’s members. Only if ideas are shared publicly but evaluated privately will the group be good at exploring its options and making good choices. Scout bees share freely the news of their finds, but each one makes her own, independent decision of whether or not to support a site.
Biologist and biodiversity researcher Dr Casper Schönig manages a number of urban beehives around Berlin, including some we visited in the garden at Cafe Botanico over the weekend. He traces the tradition of beekeeping in Berlin through to the DDR, when honey functioned as an alternative currency and could be sold back to the state at a fixed price (Annette Mueller, founder of Berliner Honig, an association of local beekeepers, tells a similar story). Following the fall of the wall, urban hives dropped out of use as other economic opportunities arose, contributing to the decline of the local bee population. Schönig is skeptical about the significance of Colony Collapse Disorder in Europe, and indeed about any overgeneralised approach to the various problems faced by bees in different parts of the world. Though today in Berlin there is only one-third of the number of city beehives active in the 1950s, it seems that urban beekeeping is currently experiencing something of a revival, following campaigns such as Berlin Summt! to install beehives on rooftops around the city.
Germans are in fact amongst the world’s largest consumers of honey. Claire Preston in her contribution to the Reaktion book series on animals, Bee (2006), claims Germans consume up to 4.3 kg of honey per capita compared to 0.5 kg in the US (citing figures from the American National Honey Board; Preston 2006, p. 48).
Image sourced from Prinzessinnengarten blog.
At Prinzessinnengarten, beekeeper Heinz maintains foundationless hives, foregoing the pressed wax comb templates that are common to domestic hives. Ridges on the inside of the roof of his hanging ‘coffin beehive’ provide prompts for the bees to build combs orderly enough for Heinz to inspect and rob. He believes that the smaller combs built in these hives allows for better protection against parasites like the notorious Varroa mite. The brood occupies the front section of the box which Heinz accesses from below, and can expand into the rear of the kiste to store honey. Heinz claims these hives also allow more room for the bees to perform their waggle dance. Heinz doesn’t prevent his bees from swarming, nor does he remove the drones, and only minimally intervenes for hive maintenance, using organic acids seasonally to protect against parasites. He harvests honey once in the season, usually around mid-summer, to allow the bees time to replenish their honey stocks before they ‘overwinter’, preferring not to feed them sugar water or supplements.
Nebraskan beekeeper Michael Bush endorses a similar approach of ‘lazy beekeeping’ that simply allows bees to do their thing with minimal interference. Bush, like Heinz, believes these methods result in healthier, cleaner hives and encourage stronger strains of bees to flourish.
North America is afflicted by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the threat of Africanised Honey Bees and numerous other pests and diseases, which have led beekeepers to become reliant on pesticides and regulatory processes. Bush observes that the depletion of localised feral bee populations and beekeepers buying queens from a small group of breeders has resulted in a significant reduction of the bee gene pool on the continent. Rather than practice such precarious methods, Bush has sought other means by which to keep his hives free of mites and diseases. He now maintains what he calls ‘natural comb’ hives, producing smaller combs than those made by ‘normal’ bees, and advocates for others to similarly regress their hives. By removing the template wax combs from hives and allowing bees to draw their own, successive generations of bees become smaller. This approach to beekeeping, while still a means of harvesting honey for human consumption, emphasises healthier hives and stronger bee generations over maximum honey yields, and might be considered more benign(!).
Might such shifting dispositions represent an entry point from which to think about an interspecies ecologically-focused approach to urban agriculture, economics, science and politics?