Very excited for my new book “Listening to the Bees” co-authored with poet Renee Saklikar. Manuscript in to the publisher (Nightwood Editions), book due out 30 April 2018. Stay tuned!
Au·da·cious: “A willingness to take surprisingly bold risks; bold, daring, fearless, intrepid, brave, courageous, valiant, heroic, plucky.”
Very excited to announce that the final report from the Bee Audacious conference is now available.
Here’s a small bit from the report that captures its most important outcome:
Bee Audacious demonstrated that diverse perspectives can indeed come together and reach broad, effective outcomes that still respect individual and organizational interests. Sometimes the most audacious thing we can do is reach across the aisles that separate us to work collaboratively with those with whom we disagree.
In that way Bee Audacious taught us something considerably more important than the pollinator issues that brought us together. Civility is possible, and positive collaborative outcomes likely, when we rise to respectfully listen to each other above perceived differences.
We are our finest and most effective selves when solitary becomes communal. It is through collaboration that our future prosperity and the health of pollinators will be best assured.
Just back from the Bee Audacious conference, and it was astounding, possibly the best bee meeting I’ve ever been at. It combined bees and dialogue, and was a model of both civility and tangible outcomes. There will be a full report eventually, but take a look at the video of the public presentation we did after the conference. You’ll be bee-lighted!
It was a red brick former one-room schoolhouse, standing forlorn and isolated at the edge of a swatch of Midwestern prairie. I was similarly lonely, having just arrived in Lawrence, Kansas to take up graduate studies, with no place to live, very little money and no job to support myself.
That August was particularly hot and humid, even for a Kansas summer, quite a comedown from the Cape Cod sea breezes, salt marshes, sand dunes and ocean vistas I had left behind just as few days before. I had abandoned many friends, a developing career in marine biology and a classically quaint Cape-style cottage to pursue a different life, that of an entomologist studying bees.
It was a desolate moment, that arrival, but good fortune soon shifted my mood. Within hours I checked in at the Entomology Department, and a few minutes later the sympathetic Chair of the department had provided me with both a job and a free place to live. The job was bread-and-butter graduate student employment, working as a teaching assistant in a biology class, but the living arrangements were, well, unusual.
I headed out that afternoon to the edge of the city to take up my new residence, a former schoolhouse that had been taken over by the Entomology Department and nicknamed the bee house, a research facility used to study bees and wasps. All I had to do in return for a bed, a hot plate, a small refrigerator, worn wooden floors and blackboarded walls was inhabit the place to discourage vandals.
There were a few disadvantages the Chair hadn’t mentioned. For one, I couldn’t open the windows, in spite of the daily 100oF temperatures, because each window had a papery grey wasp nest hung on the outside, study colonies for a graduate student interested in how wasps organized their social behaviour.
(Photo by Bob Peterson, Creative Commons)
Lack of privacy was another tradeoff for no rent, with students coming in at all hours of the day and night, not only to record behaviors from the window nests but also to traipse around the basement, which was full of more wasp nests as well as colonies of halictid bees that nested in dirt.
The wasp-studying students were having an art contest, putting colored paper into plexiglass boxes for the wasps to use as building material, creating rainbow nests. The bee guys had taken a layer of dirt one bee width in diameter and sandwiched it between two sheets of plate glass, so that they could observe the bee behaviours.
Weekdays and many weekends I spent up the hill on campus, taking classes, reading journal articles, writing research proposals for funding, going to seminars and teaching undergraduate laboratories. Evenings I was alone, and after my hot plate dinners I often descended to the bee house basement for hymenopteran company, mesmerized watching the wasps build their nests of many colours and the bees bumping into each other as they navigated the tunnels they had carved into the dirt.
Graduate school is like that, lonely at first, an unbalanced full immersion experience with work predominant and social life suppressed. But as the bee and wasp nests died off and fall arrived, I physically and metaphorically opened the windows.
My evenings soon filled with friends, guitar playing, and student potluck dinners followed by dancing to country swing music at local clubs. Midnight often found us at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we met many a dawn at Jennings Daylight Donuts.
I also soon had a different job, a research assistantship spent looking through a microscope for hours and drawing bee mouthparts. The work provided the income I needed to go to South America for a year, to study killer bees in French Guiana for my doctoral degree.
Even while away I thought of the bee house as home, and felt cruelly uprooted when I returned to Lawrence a year later to find the schoolhouse no longer mine, taken over by the next impoverished graduate student who had arrived in my absence. Now I had to live like a regular person, renting an apartment with rooms and a real kitchen and no bees or wasps as co-tenants.
But perhaps my year in the bee house had primed me for a different way to thank about the meaning of home. A journalist asked me once to describe my first visit to a honeybee hive, and my responses was that “I opened the lid of that first hive, began pulling out combs of bees, and I felt like I was home.”
Living in the schoolhouse, I imprinted on the company of bees and wasps. Every new dwelling since has not become home until I connect with the local social insects. I’ve put a honeybee colony into the backyard, valued the wasp nest growing under the eaves, enjoyed the mating ants flying up from beneath the sidewalk or appreciated the neighborhood bees foraging on my lawn and garden.
Home is where the heart is, and my heart, still, is with the bees.
(photo by Kevin Payravi, Wikimedia Commons)
I recently authored a report for the Vancity Credit Union about economic opportunities with bees and pollination. There’s lots of gloom and doom out there about bees, but there also are many opportunities. Vancity is a wonderful organization, deeply imbedded in community, and publishes regular in-depth reports about economic issues in British Columbia. The full report can be found at “Sweet Deal: The value of bees to British Columbia’s economy” but here’s a few highlights:
Honeybees and wild bees are vital to B.C.’s economy, producing honey and pollinating berry, tree fruit, oilseed and vegetable crops, with a total annual current value of close to $500 million in products and pollinating services, and excellent potential to rise to $553 million annually within five years.
Pollination is the primary, and growing, economic benefit of bees, valued in B.C. at $468 million in 2014, a 67% increase since 2001.
The number of beekeepers in B.C. has risen 35% since 2009, with notable increase in beekeepers under the age of 40.
Blueberries are B.C.’s most highly valued crop, and provide a strong example of how insufficient pollination is limiting yields, increasing costs to consumers and diminishing profits for farmers. Blueberry growers are short 10,000 to 20,000 honeybee colonies each year, and fields have insufficient wild bees, resulting in $10 million to $20 million in losses.
Reducing pesticide use and enhancing habitats in and around blueberry farms would increase wild bee populations and improve pollination, boosting yields and profits for growers and reducing retail prices for consumers.
Declining bee populations are one symptom of increasingly harmful agricultural practices. Canadian pesticide use increased 25% from 87.5 million kilograms in 2008 to 109 million kilograms in 2014. Development of organic and sustainable farming practices would stimulate more diverse and abundant wild bee populations, reduce pesticide use, improve human and environmental health and create value-added options for B.C. growers.
A favourable climate in southwestern B.C. allows the production and sale of bees and small nucleus colonies across Canada and for export, with an immediate potential annual market of at least $10 to $15 million. This figure could grow to $30 million by 2021 if we begin exporting bees to the U.S. Expanding our local industry would also increase B.C. colony numbers to more closely align with blueberry pollination needs.
Consumer interest in locally produced honey has grown, giving B.C. beekeepers an opportunity to focus on retail sales of well-branded local honey. The total value of retail sales for B.C. honey doubled from $8 to $16 million between 2014 and 2015, reflecting an increase in retail prices from $4.60/lb. in 2014 to $7.45/lb. in 2015.
In 2014, we imported 573,200 pounds of honey, the equivalent of one-fifth of provincial production, so there is room and opportunity in the retail market for at least $3 million more B.C. honey production.
Government working in partnership with beekeepers and growers could stimulate province-wide branding of honey and bee-pollinated crops as local and sustainable, supported by bee-friendly practices advertising and branding. Development of appropriate labels and marketing strategies for all B.C. farm products would be powerful tools to stimulate bee conservation while adding value.
Poetry and science may seem to have little in common, but they do share one trait: building from fragments. I’m collaborating with a wonderful poet, Renee Sarojini Saklikar, on the Honey, Hives and Poetry project, in which we’ve been reading together at events from her poems and my prose, and writing some new material in response to each other’s work.
As Renee puts it: “One of my poetry obsessions is the fragment. Each time I read from my long poems I select fragments, further reducing the pieces, a reductive process that speaks to me of possibility . . .”
Scientific research is simultaneously reductive while discovering meaning by repeatedly recombining small bits of information in different ways. Experiments resemble poems trimmed down to their simplest bytes, expressing the scientist’s hope that disparate data might assemble into the fullness of story, revealing objective truth considerably more profound than its constituent parts.
So it was that words became a line and eventually a poem as we unraveled the identity and function of the honeybee queen pheromone over close to two decades of research. My chemistry colleague, the late Keith Slessor, had become interested in the retinue of ten to twelve worker bees that surround the queen, licking and touching their antennae to her furiously for one to two minutes each. Our hypothesis was that they were picking up the queen’s pheromones and transmitting them throughout the nest.
We had made extracts from dead queens to use in identifying her chemical signature, but had no way of determining whether worker bees responded. One day, in frustration, one of our students put a dab of extract onto a glass pipette and thrust it into into a cage of bees, exclaiming, “Take that, you bloody bees.” To her surprise, they formed a retinue around the glass as if it were a queen.
We had found our bioassay, but it still took tens of thousands of assays excising, macerating, extracting, eluting and observing over two decades to identify nine compounds that work in a synergistic mix, attracting worker bees to attend their monarch. Each individual pheromone we identified represented another fragment that then had to be tested in combination with the growing number of other compounds, until eventually the full poem of the complex honeybee queen pheromone grew from its nine simple words.
It’s a thing of beauty, this multi-fragment queen pheromone, an elixir of elegant function, reminiscent of the elusive perfection captured in the best poetry, where snippets of language weave together into a whole much more compelling than its individual parts.
I imagine writing poetry is like that, a mental image of Renee at work in her writing laboratory, testing combinations of words together, rejecting innumerable linguistic dead ends until the etymological data tell her the poem is done.
It’s fragments coalescing into meaning, at the junction where science and poetry intersect on common ground.
(In memory of Keith Slessor, a poet in chemistry)
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:
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:
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.
I’d love to hear from you: