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.