All posts by winston@sfu.ca

Competing Doomsdays

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There is a remarkable story unfolding in Ontario and Quebec around pesticides and bees, rooted in two competing doomsday scenarios. Grain farmers claim pests will destroy their crops unless they are allowed to use neonicitinoid pesticides, while beekeepers point to an epidemic of honeybee colony mortality that reached 58% last year, which they blame on the bee-toxic neonics.

Honeybees have been declining globally for well over a decade due to a perfect storm of harmful factors, including agricultural pesticides, massive single-cropped fields cleared by weed killers of the diverse nectar and pollen sources critical for bee nutrition, and a dramatic increase in diseases and pests.

Many beekeepers and environmental groups blame the neonicitinoids, so named because of their chemical similarity to nicotine, as the primary cause of diminished pollinator populations. Not surprisingly, pesticide companies claim little or no impact. Most experts agree that the neonicitinoids can be problematic but are just one of many pesticides contributing to long-term pollinator declines, alongside the non-pesticide issues.

In Ontario and Quebec the impact of neonics applied to grains was more direct. The pesticide when applied to seeds in a talcum-like dust disperses aerially on crops and into nearby habitats during planting. Significant numbers of nearby honeybee colonies have died, and likely wild bees as well.

What is remarkable about the neonic controversy is not the conflict between farmers and beekeepers over pesticide use; that’s been going on for over a century. What’s unusual is that provincial governments have sided with the beekeepers, whose lobbying capacity is subdued compared to groups like the 28,000 member Grain Farmers of Ontario.

Both Ontario and Quebec have implemented restrictions on neonicitinoids unusual in North American pesticide regulation, targeting an 80 per cent reduction in neonic use. Farmers can now only use neonicitinoid-treated seeds when they have a serious and independently verified pest problem that can not be managed by any other means, and then only with the approval of a registered pest management advisor, essentially mandating the desirable but largely unenforced principles of sustainable pest management.

As fascinating as this story is on its own, it’s just a microcosm of the much larger issue of how pesticides and farming are regulated. The mantra of contemporary super-sized agriculture has been that high chemical inputs and vast single-crop acreages are required if we are to feed the world. This assumption is based primarily on self-assured comments by lobbyists representing the corporate agricultural interests that benefit from weak pesticide regulations and strong government subsidies encouraging industrial farming.

Until recently data to confirm or deny these claims has been sparse, although the feed-the-world refrain has become a pervasive mantra driving policy in North America. But recent studies have provided science-based rather than lobbyist-spun information, and the results are clear: organic and sustainable “organic-lite” agriculture are close to or as productive as conventional farming, with greater economic returns to the farmer and considerably less environmental impact.

The question no longer is whether organic and sustainable agriculture are viable from a yield or profit perspective. They are. The questions we should be asking revolve around what levers governments should use to shift farming practices in progressive directions.

Loose regulations around pesticides as well as vast subsidies that favor conventional farming have left us awash in annual global chemical use, about 90 million kilograms of pesticides in Canada and 2.7 billion kilograms world-wide.

Stricter pesticide regulations, such as the small but positive step taken by Ontario and Quebec to limit neonicitinoid applications, as well as modifying subsidies to favor a transition towards organic/sustainable practices, would improve farm economics and environmental integrity while maintaining high yields.

Pollinator declines are important in themselves, but more significantly are a symptom of outmoded agricultural practices. Pollinator protection could be the thin edge of the wedge driving agricultural policy towards a sweeter spot where crop yields, farming practices and environmental protection are in better balance.

Photo: By USDA Photo by: Charles O’Rear [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Your thoughtful comments are most welcome:

Review of “The Dancing Bees”

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I recently reviewed a new book for Nature ( 533, 32–33, 05 May 2016,  doi:10.1038/533032a), “The Dancing Bees” by Tania Munz, focused largely on how Karl von Frisch discovered the function of the honeybee dance language while in the heart of Nazi Germany. It’s a fascinating story,  how a scientist immersed in the unimaginable horrors perpetrated by a brutal regime managed to craft a hugely significant scientific discovery. Click on the link above for the full review. (Note that after I posted the review was put behind a paywall. It can be accessed through most library systems that have a subscription to Nature).

Your thoughtful comments are welcome, as always:

 

 

Authors for Indies

Munro's signing

I’m excited to be taking part in my first “Authors for Indies” day on Saturday 30 April, at 32Books in North Vancouver. But even more exciting has been my growing realization that independent bookstores in North America are alive and thriving, recovering from a difficult time about a decade ago when many indies were toppling due to competition with big box bookstores and e-books.

Authors for Indies describes the event as “a day when authors show their appreciation for Canadian independent bookstores (indies) by volunteering as guest booksellers for the day . . . You’ll have the opportunity to meet local authors, chat with us booklover to booklover, and get book recommendations . . . Authors are doing this to raise awareness of indie bookstores and how important they are to our communities, our reading lives, and our cultural well-being. It’s a day to give some love to your local neighbourhood bookstore.”

I’ve been giving love to local bookstores since, well, forever, but recently I’ve added opportunities to fuel my passion for indies by reading from my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive” at independent stores all across North America. These experiences verified that indies remain treasured resources in local communities all across Canada and the United States.

I began my reading tour with a Pacific Northwest swing, starting at Munro’s in Victoria, British Columbia. Recently rated one of the top ten independent bookstores in the world, Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro and his then-wife, the stellar Canadian author Alice Munro, in 1963. It’s in a beautifully restored former Royal Bank building, decorated with elegant wooden shelves, a coffered ceiling and stunning fabric banners by the artist Carole Sabiston that depict classic works of literature.

But it’s Munro’s friendly and knowledgeable team with superb taste in what to stock that sets it apart from the big box and online retailers, even more than its bookstore-perfect space. It’s that bit of magic that characterizes indies, each with its own quirky blend of books that delights browsers with that delightful find of a new author, and highlights the diverse reading tastes of their staff that extend our range of interests as readers.

My west coast tour continued through the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle and on to Powell’s City of Books in Portland. Elliot Bay has a lighter-colored wood look, but like Munro’s exhibits extensive curated sections that open previously untraveled reading vistas. I’m particularly fond of their Pacific Northwest section, where I’ve been introduced to many fine writers, and their sale tables, which unlike many bargain bins have excellent books.

Elliot Bay is also similar to Munro’s in hosting an active series of authors’ readings, in their case over 3000 events of poetry, fiction and nonfiction in the last decade. These readings highlight another outstanding characteristic of independent bookstores, which Elliot Bay expresses well on their website: “As with many of the books we highlight, there are many authors who have read here as relatively unknown, and who have gone on to wider acclaim. Readers and audiences here have long been among the first to help move these writers and their work out into the larger world.

And they were one of the first bookstores to combine a coffee shop with their bookstore, a natural blend of café culture and readers.

Powell’s is another independent rated as one of the top ten in the world. It’s an iconic stop on any booklovers tour, a mix of 2 million used, new and out-of-print titles. Powell’s is a all-day destination, open 365 days a year, with a café to catch your breath and many dusty corners reminiscent of library browsing but with all the volumes for sale.

They, too, connect books in unexpected but delightful patterns. On my last visit Powell’s had a memoir sale, focusing attention on a genre neglected by more commercially driven bookstores.

Powell’s City of Books represents another important aspect of independent bookstores: they are economic drivers. Powell’s has 530 employees, and is one of the top tourist destinations in Portland. Many, like myself, have visited Portland solely to spend a day at Powell’s. Its flagship store is as eclectic as it’s books. The original building was a car dealership, but the current store expanded to a full city block by cobbling together a mix of odd buildings that could never have been planned from scratch.

I’ve toured across Canada over the last year, reading at bookstores, literary festivals, libraries, universities and beekeeping clubs. Beyond their physical stores, the independents have staffed tables selling “Bee Time” at events, providing a rich opportunity to talk books and pick up recommendations for further reading.

My gratitude to these fine bookstores has gone well beyond the pleasure they have brought me as a costumer. “Bee Time” became a Canadian bestseller largely because of the support provided by the independents I worked with, including such fine indies as Bookmark in Halifax, Perfect Books in Ottawa, Ben McNally Books in Toronto, Bookshelf in Guelph, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, Salt Spring Books on Salt Spring Island, Talewind Books in Sechelt, Black Bond Books in Surrey, Banyen Books in Vancouver and 32Books in North Vancouver. As well, over 400 other indies throughout Canada and innumerable others in the United States have been generously friendly to “Bee Time.”

Selling books as an independent bookseller is still a tough business, populated by passionate owners and staff who accept low profit margins and long hours in return for the satisfaction of being cornerstone institutions in their communities.

I hope you’ll join me on 30 April at 32Books in Vancouver, or at your own local independent bookstore across the country, to celebrate the outstanding contributions the indies provide to writers, readers, and communities.

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Comments always welcome:

Quotations

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I’m on my second thick journal of quotations, a collection of short word-bursts I’ve been gathering for almost two decades, mostly from books but also from magazines, newspapers and the occasional in-person comment.

The selected passages I copy into my journal are topically diverse, but with some consistent themes. One persistent thread has been simple appreciation for a well-turned phrase, even when the subject is of little interest. I have no fascination with automobiles, yet loved Yann Martel’s description of an early 1900’s Renault in his recent novel “The High Mountains of Portugal:”

This is a brand new four cylinder Renault, a masterpiece of engineering. Look at it! A creation that not only shines with the might of logic but sings with the allure of poetry.

Or this imaginative gem, from Simon Winchester”s nonfiction book “Pacific” (2015), describing the cruise industry’s downturn:

The combination of vacant staterooms and low-budget passengers steadily reduced Cunard’s profits to the thinness of the cucumbers in the Britannia lounge’s afternoon tea sandwiches.

I’ve long been intrigued by the power of personal stories, but also cognizant that memory is the friend of good storytelling but not necessarily the best companion for accuracy. These two quotations from recent books perfectly expressed that tension between memory and fact:

Memory is only one version of the truth.
Richard Wright, “A Life with Words,” 2015

If you remember the sweet crunch of an apple you had in your lunch box the first day of school, but an old Instagram photo reveals that it was an orange, which is truer: the taste in your mouth or the picture of a fruit you do not remember?
Camilla Gibb, in an article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, 19 September 2015

Like all of us, I’ve endured the demise of relationships, and another theme in my collected passages has been faded love:

At the circus, the worst that can go wrong is a lion kills you. There’s a lot more that can go wrong with a marriage.
John Irving, “Avenue of Mysteries” 2015

You think there will be a time to say goodbye, but people have often gone before you know about it. And I don’t just mean the dying.
Rachel Joyce, “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy,” 2014

My quotation journals also reveal uncertainty about how to reconcile with the past, letting go of people and events that inhibit us from getting on with our lives. Connie Gault, in her stunning book about prairie life “A Beauty” (2015), captured this most complex challenge in two simple sentences:

She’d seen what happened to people who dwelt on the past. They stranded themselves between whatever had happened and whatever might have been.

Moving on often requires forgiveness, an unusually complex personal challenge. The idea of forgiveness itself is confusing, but Elizabeth Hay found the elusive language to articulate this most difficult of concepts, in her novel “His Whole Life” (2015):

Forgiveness could be considered a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe.

I’ve had an ongoing interest in the activities and atmosphere that lead to clear writing, those locations, times and environments unique for each of us where insights emerge. My own best writing used to happen early in the morning, around 5:00 AM, when I would move to my home office from bed, coffee in hand, and emerge hours later having typed pages of prose that seemed to rarely need much editing.

But lately that’s changed, and my clearest writing happens now in coffee shops, during the afternoons between the office and home, including this blog piece that is being composed at one of my favorite Vancouver coffee shops, Brioche.

Susan Cain addressed café writing in her 2012 book about introverts, “Quiet:”

I wrote most of this book on a laptop at my favorite densely packed neighborhood café. I did this [because] the mere presence of other people helped my mind to make associative leaps.

Cafés historically have been places of conversation. Although today most coffee shop customers are online rather than engaged directly with another person, the shops still retain that flavor of conversing, albeit a mix of face-to-face and electronic. Perhaps that’s the inspiration for Susan Cain’s associative leaps, seemingly disconnected ideas finding each other, stimulated through café submergence in a sea of conversation.

The quotations that make it into my journal may be uniquely interesting to me and of little value to others, but the isolated snippets of language that jump out from the page and get transcribed serve as records of what has been on my mind, highlighting the thinking points that flavor each day.

Quotations are much like a personal chat with the author, shorthand emerging from that intimate relationship between writer and reader.

And perhaps, just perhaps, somewhere and sometime I’ve written something exquisite enough to make it into a reader’s journal.

It is, after all, the most human of traits to seek meaning in the world around us, and the most human of traits to share those insights. What better way to end than a Margaret Atwood quotation from her beautiful 2003 book about writing, “Negotiating with the Dead:”

Perhaps I have reached the age at which those who have been through the wash-and-spin cycle a few times become seized by the notion that their own experience in the suds may be relevant to others.

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I’d love to hear from you, especially with a favourite quotation or two:

Synchrony

Mark and dancers

Bees, dance, playgrounds and children’s books came together unexpectedly in Toronto last week, along with synchrony, the idea of simultaneous occurrence or motion.

The children’s book was not so much the book as its author JonArno Lawson, whom I met at the Governor-General’s Literary Awards in December. His and illustrator Sydney Smith’s winning book was “Sidewalk Flowers,” which I recommend highly for children and adults alike.

I was delighted that JonArno was free one night while I was in Toronto, as he is a most engaging dinner companion. At one point he told me about a remarkable bit of playground research he’d uncovered, conducted by a student of the American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall. JonArno subsequently sent me a few pages from Hall’s 1983 Book “The Dance of Life,” that described the study.

As Hall wrote, “He began to notice one very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. My student noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. Many viewings later, he realized that this girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground!”

Hall went on to describe how the pattern of movement was like the beat of music, with the playground’s children dancing to its silent rhythm. There was no music, however. Rather, the kids were tapping into some subconscious rhythm of play they perceived in a non-audible way.

I immediately thought of bees, and the transcendent spirit of the hive by which the colony collective seems to skip and dance and twirl within the hive much like Hall’s children on the playground.

There is a rhythm to each colony, a beat of activity set by a few individual bees. All might be quiet in the hive until a scout forager returns, dancing vigorously to inform her nestmates of the distance and direction to a field of nectar or pollen-yielding flowers. Potential foragers follow the dance and then fly out themselves, returning with nectar or pollen or both, and performing their own dances that excite other workers.

It all begins with that first scout setting the beat, but soon the pace of the hive has escalated, with some workers accepting and processing the incoming nectar, some packing pollen into cells, and still others following the now-numerous dances and then flying out to forage.

The colony appears in simultaneous motion, a synchronous blending of tasks that creates a palpable rhythm, each bee responding to the beat with different tasks while staying true to the inflections of the collective.

JonArno also suggested that perhaps human dancers resemble bees in our capacity to pace dance to a subtle rhythm-setter. We’ve all been at parties where we might be dancing fluidly among many partners, but there’s usually someone who is influencing the entire dance floor’s pace without being an obvious leader.

I experienced this intersection between bee and human dance most intensely when I was part of two dance projects with Vancouver’s LINK Dance Foundation. I’d never performed on stage with dancers before, but what struck me as most profound was how aware we were of each other without any direct look or other signals. Rather, each segment from each dance had its rhythm subtly conducted by a different performer’s individual beat, with understated leadership shifting between dancers as the piece progressed.

Whether we are well tuned to the playground’s beat or the synchronicity of dance, the pace of human life is remarkably influenced by subtle cues beneath our conscious awareness.

Hall wrote about our perception of that subliminal beat: “I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. This explains why some composers really do seem to be able to tap into that sea and express for the people the rhythms that are felt but not yet expressed as music. Poets do this too . . .”

As do bees, themselves composers and poets of their own colony’s cadence, another reminder of the remarkable lessons to be gleaned by those who listen to the rhythm of the hive.

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I’d love to hear from you:

All Credit to the Bees

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I’m having the most marvelous couple of months at work, with a remarkable diversity of pursuits that, at first blush, seem disconnected. What, for example, do naturopaths, territorial legislatures, a polytechnic college, a human rights caucus, agricultural land use planners and writing festivals have in common?

If you’re a winstonhive.com regular, you can see the answer coming: bees. Admittedly I do occupy a senior position at my university’s Centre for Dialogue that allows me considerable latitude in my research, teaching and community engagement activities. But still, it’s bees that have guided me into the diverse portfolios I’ve taken on.

Take the naturopaths, for instance. I was approached by a clinic that was interested in increasing collaboration in their business decisions and professional development, as well as in how their doctors cooperate in patient care.

They turned to me to facilitate a workshop on collaboration after hearing me talk on the radio about how honeybees work together, putting the needs of the colony above those of individuals. And indeed, that was the outcome of our meeting; the group devised strategies by which their solitary endeavours could become communal, which is the essence of collaboration.

I wrote in an earlier blog post about facilitating a priority planning exercise for the 19 newly elected members of the Northwest Territories legislature. The NWT has an unusual form of government, consensus-based rather than the argumentative party politics more common in democracies. There was an excellent fit between how I understood consensus from studying honeybee colonies, and the legislators understood consensus as a decision-making tool.

For example, scout workers in a honeybee swarm searching for a new nest return from scouting and perform dances that contain information about the distance, direction and most importantly quality of a potential nesting cavity. At first there are dances to many sites, but eventually the workers concentrate on one and the swarm lifts off and flies together to the new nest.

David Bohm, one of human dialogue’s historical giants, wrote about how a tribe of native Americans reaches decisions, and his narrative perfectly summarizes how the NWT Territorial Assembly works by consensus, and honeybees as well: “They just talked and talked and talked. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other.”

Another bee-related invitation came from Humber College in Toronto, due to an important innovation in their classrooms, HIVES, which stands for Humber Interactive Spaces. HIVES are 19 classrooms designed to function as collaborative learning spaces, where students can learn from and with each other, as well as from the professor. Six to eight students sit in pods at tables with computer and internet access, and use inquiry based curriculum to learn together, guided by their group’s interactions as much or more than by the professor.

HIVES were inspired by honeycomb, which is among nature’s most collaborative enterprises, constructed by thousands of bees that each secrete simple flakes of wax and together form them into a highly complicated and robust structure. It is the venue upon which bees exchange information, communicating their experiences inside and outside the hive, creating awareness of their own community and the external environment. Honeycomb embodies the ideas of collaboration, experience and learning that characterize the HIVES classrooms.

Just yesterday I gave a talk and facilitated a session for a caucus of nurses invested in furthering human rights and equity within their profession and externally. The focus was on how to have difficult conversations. I was able to draw upon honeybee communication to provide ideas for the group to ponder.

If there is a single element that stands out to explain why honeybees work together so well, it’s their intense communication with each other. Honeybees excel at exchanging information with and maintaining a continual awareness of the hive mates around them.

Bees listen to each other, deeply, all channels on, using every mode of communicating we know of and probably some we’re not yet aware of. Vision, odor, taste, hearing, touch, vibration, magnetism, electric fields – the input is constant and the interactions intense. And that same depth of communication is a powerful tool to overcome human rights abuses and establish a more equitable society.

Next week I’m on way to Toronto for a dinner meeting with ALUS, the Agricultural Land Use Society. ALUS is a farmer delivered program that gives Canadians the opportunity to play an active role in building a healthier environment by providing support to farmers and ranchers to enhance and maintain ecosystem services.

Bees, both honey and wild, drew me into agriculture, as managed and wild bees can’t be studied without understanding how deeply they depend on healthy agroecosystems. The decline of honeybees and wild bees has been major news for the last ten years or so, and I share the public’s concern for the future of our pollinating global co-inhabitants. As a result, I’ve become increasingly proactive in speaking out in favor of reduced pesticide use, diversified habitats and more sustainable farming as important strategies to preserve pollinators.

The last set of invitations have come through writing, especially my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.” I’ve given 30 or 40 readings over the last year since the book came out, and will be heading to the Winnipeg Writers Festival next week for their annual gala celebrating the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Writing about bees has been among my greatest personal delights, and the chance to read for a public audience is still a thrill. Invisible to my audience, but visceral to me, is that I’m sharing the podium with the bees.

I rarely spend time in apiaries any more, but the bees are with me no matter what activity has come my way, infused by whatever wisdom the hive has imparted during my 40 years of bee time.

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I’d love to hear from you:

Beekeeping Has Changed

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I’ve had the opportunity to speak at, oh, probably a gazillion beekeeping meetings over the last 40 years, from small local gatherings to an audience of over 3000 at Apimondia 1999. I had a long absence from meetings for ten years after I began directing my university’s Centre for Dialogue, but with the release of my 2014 book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” I returned to the speaking circuit.

That ten-year gap spanned a tumultuous era in beekeeping, and when I returned to lecturing I discovered that the beekeeping community today is quite different from what it was a decade ago.

A combination of decreased forage, increased pesticide use and rampant disease and pest problems now kills between 30 and 45 per cent of North American colonies annually, compared to the five or ten per cent when I left. That, of course, is a quite different world for bees, but it has also stimulated some dramatic shifts in who comes to meetings and how they keep bees since the advent of the bee apocalypse.

Attendance and makeup of audiences has changed significantly over the last ten years. A typical local meeting back then might have ten crotchety men over the age of 70, and a state or provincial meeting perhaps fifty or so of the same. Now, the audiences I speak to are in the hundreds, sometimes even for a local meeting, and there are many young people and women in the crowd.

Given the problems honeybee colonies experience today, that’s a remarkable increase in audience diversity and abundance. I attribute the increase to two factors. First, people care about bees, and have responded to the crisis by getting involved. And second, the new beekeepers also care about food, and growing local, a movement that seems to have spread into beekeeping along with hands-on gardening and urban farming.

Another observation that fascinates me is the number of beekeepers who no longer treat for Varroa. At all. This lack of chemical dependence is more prominent in the hobby and sideline crowd, but more and more commercial beekeepers with hundreds of colonies are telling me the same thing.

At first I doubted that beekeepers could actually keep their colonies alive without treatments, and they do lose colonies, occasionally large numbers. But the colony losses they report are in the 30 to 40 per cent range, no worse than beekeepers that treat heavily. Perhaps in the pre-collapse days, with low winter mortality, treatment was clearly preferable. But if you’re going to lose over one third of your colonies each year whether you treat or not, skipping treatments may make good sense, saving both labor and the costs of chemical treatments.

What’s missing in this discussion are data. We need more rigorous studies comparing treated and untreated colonies. Relying on anecdote is not a robust way to design colony management recommendations, but there seems to be enough stories out there to justify a large-scale research effort to examine the desirability of few or no treatments in today’s environment of high annual colony losses.

Another surprising impression I have from my travels is an increase in beekeepers who prefer top bar hives to the more standard Langstroth equipment. In New Mexico, for example, half of all colonies are kept in top bar hives.

Top bars would seem to have many disadvantages, particularly the need to destroy the comb to harvest honey, as the frames can’t be spun in extractors like the Langstroth frames. But what’s most interesting about top bar advocates is that they seem less focused on maximizing honey production and more focused on enjoying their bees.

And they do see some advantages in their system. Yes, colonies may have a tendency to swarm more often in top bars, but top bar beekeepers compensate by checking their hives often during swarming season, with a hands-on attitude focused more on observing and enjoying their bees than on producing copious quantities of honey.

They also rarely move their hives, which may be another advantage since moving colonies exposes bees to diseases and pests. And, top bar beekeepers focus on harvesting wax as well as honey; the high value of beeswax provides some economic counterweight to producing less honey.

I may be generalizing from too-few experiences, and perhaps beekeeping hasn’t changed as much as I’m imagining. But if it hasn’t, it should. It would be foolish to continue keeping bees the way we used to, because the old ways no longer work.

The message I take from my limited observations is this: if there is a movement, it’s one that is putting bee health first, emphasizing the enjoyment of beekeeping as much or more as maximizing colony productivity. And it’s a movement deeply rooted in an expanding food culture that favors local farming and reductions of synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use.

I believe that a radical reinvention in how we keep bees is necessary to reduce today’s tragic colony mortality. It’s been gratifying to hear as I travel that many younger people are getting involved, with new ideas, and that they are beginning to redefine what good beekeeping means.

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Your comments are most welcome. I’d love to hear from you:

Consensus

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I had an unusual experience last December, facilitating a priority planning session for the incoming members of the 18th Legislative Assembly in the Northwest Territories. I had never been in Yellowknife, or so far north anywhere, and that alone was fascinating. But what really struck me during my visit was that the Assembly works by consensus, without political parties through which to structure governance.

Our American and Canadian governance systems rely on political parties, hoping that law and custom will contain the adversarial interactions inherent in party politics from spilling too far outside reasonable bounds.

The United States is a federal constitutional democracy designed so that Congress, the President and the Judicial System each have defined functions that check and balance the others. In practice the United States has two political parties that compete for elected office, and the system used to work reasonably well. Since any of the three government branches could overrule the others, compromise and conciliation became practical elements of the political landscape in between the more vitriolic campaign periods.

The need to govern within the boundaries formed by this balanced three-tiered system served to keep the worst impulses of politicians in check. But as any follower of American news knows, the system has gone seriously off the rails, becoming a caricature of what the founders had envisioned when writing the U.S. constitution.

The Canadian system is Parliamentary, with a number of political parties competing for seats in Parliament. The Prime Minister is the head of the party with the most votes. If he or she wins a majority of seats, their party has full control over the legislature, whereas a minority government requires more compromise between the leading party and the others. A Senate is appointed, and has limited power, but the judiciary is strong and to some extent keeps the government restrained.

This system served Canada well until recently, in part because there was a culture in Parliament of the governing parties respecting the opposition. This system broke down with the government led by Conservative Stephen Harper that trampled over Parliamentary traditions, resulting in voters turfing that government out and electing the Liberals who promised more conciliation.

The 19 members of the Northwest Territory’s Legislative Assembly run for office in their home ridings as individuals rather than as members of a party. Voters pick the person they believe will best represent their interests, and each is in office without the constraint of having to support a platform determined by a central political party. Most significantly, they are culturally and by law expected to work together to govern, rather than divide into politically fragmented segments competing with each other.

One advantage of consensus government is that it favors careful consideration of issues on merits rather than dogma. I found it difficult to categorize the members of the Assembly as left or right wing, liberal or conservative. Discussion was nuanced, reflecting the reality that issues are complex rather than the simplifications that political parties rely on to differentiate their positions from the others.

The tone of discussions also was refreshing, avoiding debate and supporting dialogue. Attack mode was missing, interactions substantive but respectful and ideas delivered thoughtfully. A tone of listening to all viewpoints permeated the room, and discussion continued until everyone who wanted to had their say.

There certainly was disagreement, but it was fascinating to see how different opinions were resolved. For one thing there was a remarkable lack of conflict. Disagreement, yes, but skirmishes and battles were absent. Most notably, issues didn’t become personal but were discussed respectfully on their merits. After listening to the caustic personal attacks that permeated the recent Canadian and the current American elections, it was most refreshing to hear tones of respect rather than personal denigration.

Another compelling aspect of how consensus government resolves disagreements is that decisions are made less by vote and more by slow evolution towards communally acceptable positions. In a typical exchange, one member of the legislature will raise a point that may differ from another. The group talks around the issue until all points are raised, but in a direction that seeks agreement.

Compromise is paramount, worded in language such as “Here’s an idea; do you think it will resolve your concern?” Indeed, this was a striking aspect of my time with the Assembly; discussions didn’t lead towards hardening of perspectives but rather softening of the boundaries between positions.

Whatever the mechanism, consensus government supports another “c” word sadly lacking in political interactions: “Civility.” It was uplifting, and invigorating, to see that civility can work in government, without the circus arena that today characterizes the Canadian Parliaments and Assemblies, and the U.S. Congress and state governments.

The Canadian north may be small in population, but it is huge in ideas that we in the south would be well served to learn from.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Stentor

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Stentor

I’ve had the strangest illusionary experiences lately, almost mystical, occurring about two or three times a week.

Here’s one: I reached for a glass of water on the kitchen counter, and had a vivid memory of the apartment where I stayed in Asheville, North Carolina last year, during a speaking tour. And it was intense; I could remember almost every detail of the apartment, from décor to furnishings to the personality of my host.

That level of recall of someone else’s home is remarkable considering that Lori can change the art and other objects in our Vancouver apartment without my noticing for days. And nothing in my powerful Asheville recollection had anything to do with a glass of water.

Here’s another: I picked up a magazine from my nightstand, and flashed on an extremely detailed image of a one-celled organism that I had studied as an undergraduate student. The creature, Stentor, appeared in my mind as it looked under a microscope swimming in a dish of pond water. Although tiny, Stentor is a complex organism with many internal structures and external hairs and behaviors, all of which came back to me in exquisite detail during this mental impression.

And again, no obvious connection with what I was doing, or the magazine I was about to read.

Memory is known to work through associations, so that particular images are connected with information. For example, we see a face and we recall the person. But what is more curious is when memories are evoked by seemingly unassociated events.

Perhaps this flashback phenomenon, disconnected from its stimulus, is one of the pathways to creative writing, where imagination and inspiration interact to evoke and modify memories that can be woven together into story. The Canadian writer Robertson Davies described this process as: “Where the stuff comes from, what happens to it, how the unconscious and the conscious must be allowed to kiss and conmingle, and then how the conscious has to do the editing.”

Another conduit of creativity occurs when fully formed ideas leap into consciousness, seemingly from nowhere. When writing my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” I had just about completed a chapter about honey but couldn’t seem to find that last sentence.

I looked at the chapter almost daily for about a month without an ending emerging, until one day I woke up with these words in my head, fully formed: “Food at its best carries memories and reflections that go beyond sustenance to connect the personalities who harvest and the land from which they gather, making holy the simple act of eating.”

Random visions and the sudden arrival of fully formed sentences have one vital element in common: both serve the interests of storytelling. The Asheville apartment and the one-celled Stentor were images that held potential to evoke character and plot. These detailed memories were like freeze-framed scenes from a movie; all I had to do was press the play button and a story could unfold.

Our human brains are designed to mingle the conscious and the unconscious, and for the possibility of their fusion into language and story. I suspect all of us mingle dream images and consciousness, memory and observation, but perhaps it is the writer’s unique talent to unfreeze those frames and carry them forward into storytelling.

I don’t know if my brain flashes will continue to emerge into consciousness, or whether writing will flow from these snapshots. But they connect to stories from my past, and for that I treasure these occasional random eruptions of memory.

The Chat

To my great surprise, my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” has won the 2015 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction (http://ggbooks.ca/books/non-fiction/english/bee-time-lessons-from-the-hive). It’s been a huge thrill, almost on par with the day my daughter was born, or that first life-changing conversation with Lori at a sculpture artist’s show opening, a chat that has extended into a lifelong dialogue.

And it’s the gift that keeps on giving; pretty much every day since the 28 October announcement has brought some interesting invitation or idea across my cyber-desk. Opportunities to lecture or read at bookstores, invitations to do workshops, quirky thoughts on the telapathetic powers of bees, catch-up notes from long-lost friends, information about fascinating projects being done by artists to draw attention to the plight of bees (see, for example, http://www.thegoodofthehive.com) and much more has filled my inbox.

And there’s been the occasional insult. My favorite so far is that I was a “too smart by half nitwit.” Not bad, although not quite up to the professor who called me a “nincompoop” early in my career.

But I really knew I’d arrived in the literary stratosphere when an editor contacted me about doing one of those interviews that newspapers publish with authors, assuming that we’re interesting and knowledgeable. You know the ones: there’s a nice picture of the author, followed by a series of bolded questions that provide we authors with the opportunity to show off our erudition, but usually come off with us seeming to be crabby and ill-tempered.

I was a bit concerned when I received the request, because the questions can often be hard to answer. Things like “Which of your favorite authors writes the best sentences?” Or “So what are you reading now?” I dread that particular question in radio or live interviews since, although I read constantly, my mind invariably goes blank when asked about what I’m reading or to recommend a great book.

But to my surprise I enjoyed my cyber-chat with Trevor Corkum of the online outlet 49th Shelf. He had read the book, had some insightful questions, and even his query about “writers who have influenced me” wasn’t painful as I had some time to think rather than having to answer on the spot.

Hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. You can find it at http://49thshelf.com/Blog/2015/11/06/The-Chat-Trevor-Corkum-Interviews-2015-GGs-Winner-Mark-L.-Winston