Tag Archives: Bees


We often support the value of bees with economic arguments, neglecting the dimension of values, the principles we hold important and the personal and environmental standards that should be at the heart of beekeeping rather than at its fringes.

The current serious issues facing bees suggest it is time for a new manifesto to guide beekeeping, one that recognizes beekeepers as stewards of both managed and wild bees, promoters of healthy environments, managers of economically sustainable apiaries and paragons of collaboration and cooperation. It’s time for some audacious thinking about the future of beekeeping.

Such a manifesto might look something like this:

  • Beekeepers are Stewards of their honeybees, lightly managing colonies with minimal chemical and antibiotic input.
  • Beekeepers are Promoters of healthy environments in which wild and managed bees can thrive, including reduced chemical inputs and mixed cropping systems in agricultural settings and diverse unmanaged natural habitats in urban and rural areas.
  • Beekeeping is Economically Viable, so that hobbyists can enjoy their bees with some honey to give away, sideliners meet expenses with a bit of profit and commercial beekeepers have a consistent and sustainable income sufficient to support a family without the heavy personal stress associated with contemporary beekeeping.
  • Beekeeping organizations are Inclusive, Collaborative and Cooperative, encompassing hobbyists with one hive to commercial beekeepers with thousands, wild bees enthusiasts to honeybee keepers, and honey producers to pollinators, under one umbrella organization that puts the health and prosperity of bees and the environment that supports them first.

We need to recognize that the good old days are gone. Bees are no longer able to respond with the resilience that allowed us to manage honeybees intensively and depend on healthy ecosystems for wild and managed bees to thrive. Today, pesticides are ubiquitous, diseases and pests rampant, and the diversity and abundance of bee forage has plummeted.

It’s a new day, and below are just a few suggestions for what a manifesto-driven bee community might look like. Note that every idea goes against conventional wisdom, but keep in mind that these are not conventional times for bees:

Perhaps we can no longer take copious honey harvests from our bees. If so, a good first step would be to take ¼ less honey and feed that much less sugar.

Perhaps we should let colonies swarm every second year, providing a break in the brood cycle that might diminish the impact of varroa.

Perhaps we should move honeybees no more than once for pollination, recognizing that honeybees are no longer healthy enough to sustain multiple moves.

Perhaps honeybees should no longer be considered our primary agricultural pollinator, but used to supplement wild bee populations whose diversity and abundance we increase by large-scale habitat enhancement in and around farms.

Perhaps we should allow only one varroa treatment per year to prevent resistance.

Perhaps we should eliminate all antibiotic use, controlling bacterial diseases like American Foul Brood through a rigorous inspection and burning regime, as they do in New Zealand.

Perhaps we should cease the practice of feeding pollen supplements in the spring, as we now understand such feeding yields higher worker populations but weaker individual bees.

Perhaps research should rigorously analyze these “perhaps” ideas. Our research community has done a fabulous job of elucidating why honeybees and wild bees are doing poorly, but what we need now are bolder research directions towards solutions.

Researchers tend towards the more glamorous high-tech solutions, but those are unlikely to succeed and at best are far down the road. Some old-fashioned, large-scale management research is needed now, coupling studies of hive survival and wild bee abundance and diversity with economic analyses of what works best for beekeepers and crop pollination.

Here’s one example: I have been travelling quite a bit lately promoting my new book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive,” and I consistently encounter beekeepers who are not treating for varroa, but rather breeding from surviving untreated colonies. They report colony survival rates as good or better as those commercial beekeepers who treat heavily, but it’s all anecdotal. Let’s test those claims more rigorously, by organizing national projects to compare untreated surviving colonies to lightly or heavily chemically treated colonies.

Here’s another example: I know of no economic studies that demonstrate moving bees for pollination is economically superior to maintaining stationary apiaries, or that compare moving bees once, twice or more. My own opinion is that the extent of bee movement is a major contributing factor in the poor colony survival we see across North America, with 42% of colonies dying in 2013/2014 in the United States. But, I know of no data that support or dismiss my hunch.

There is a changed mind-set enveloped in my brief manifesto, one in which we consider the well being of bees as the primary directive rather than economic prosperity or beekeeper convenience. Putting bees first is the only way managed and wild bees will return to health, and beekeepers and farmers with bee-pollinated crops to prosperity.

I don’t know whether this manifesto is the right direction, or the ideas above sound, but I do know that the status quo is unsustainable.

There is a quote attributed to Einstein that is highly relevant for the future of beekeeping: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Perhaps it’s time to challenge everything we have believed about beekeeping with honeybees, and to boldly promote wild bees to become our primary commercial-level pollinators.

Perhaps it’s time to be audacious.

Mark Winston is Professor and Senior Fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and author of the recent bookBee Time: Lessons From the Hive.”

Honey, Hives and Poetry

Bees do many things, but one undervalued side product of being involved in apiculture is the diversity of doors that bees open for human interaction. There are, of course, the obvious interdisciplinary collaborations: entomologist with botanist, scientist with beekeeper, professor with government regulator, environmentalist with wild bee enthusiast.

I’ve been privileged to enjoy all of those interactions, but perhaps my most interesting partnerships have been with artists. I’ve worked with dancers, novelists, sculptors and multimedia artists, with valued learning and some deep friendships emerging from each project.

And now I’ve embarked on another artistic journey, working with award-winning poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar on a project connecting poets with beekeepers, chefs, urban farmers, food bank workers and others to celebrate and explore the boundaries of language and bees.

The project inhabits the intersection of the global movement to grow healthy food in cities, a growing awareness of threats to honeybee and wild bee pollinators and the vibrant poetry scene in Vancouver. Poetry is the ideal voice through which to capture our memories and reflections about food, going beyond sustenance to connect the personalities who harvest and the land from which they gather.

Saklikar writes thecanadaproject (https://thecanadaproject.wordpress.com), a life-long poem chronicle that includes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her book, Children of Air India, un/authorized exhibits and interjections, was the winner of the 2014 Canadian Authors Literary Award for poetry and a finalist for the 2014 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award.

She also has collected poetry about bees for decades, and admits to a bee poetry fetish. We intersected when I interviewed her for the book I was writing, and then we attended each other’s book launches, hers for Children of Air India and mine for Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive for which she contributed considerable insights into how poets have viewed bees.

Poetry allows the exploration of themes that can be difficult to express through prose, inhabiting the interstitial cracks between fact and emotion, images and dreams, imagination and language. But poetry is also about sounds, vibration and undercurrents, the song beneath connected words.

And, as we learned through our first public performance, there is a bit of the poet even in those who don’t think themselves poetic.

We premiered our collaboration last month at the Vancouver Public Library, in a program titled “Honey, Hives and Poetry in the City.” It was part of Canada’s national poetry month, which fortuitously had the theme of poetry and food this year.

Rachel Rose joined us on stage. She is the poet laureate of Vancouver and has dedicated her three-year appointment to championing poetry, language and the arts in Vancouver. She’s connecting established and emerging poets with chefs, urban farmers and others engaged in nourishing citizens to create a collaborative book of poetry inspired by food.

Elee Kraljii Gardiner and two members of Thursdays Writing Collective also joined the program. The Collective runs free drop-in creative writing classes at the Carnegie Community Centre for members of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area challenged by poverty-related issues. Rounding out the evening with a honey tasting was Sarah Common and others from Hives for Humanity, an urban beekeeping project in the heart of the Downtown Eastside (http://hivesforhumanity.com).

To our surprise and delight, we had a large and engaged audience, ranging from poets to beekeepers, urban residents to foodies, backyard gardeners to food truck groupies, all curious about what inspirations about food might be drawn from bees and honey. Their enthusiasm was palpable, their applause frequent and their response enthusiastic when we turned the tables on the audience and asked them to take a few minutes to write some brief poems of their own.

The quality of their writing was notable, audible gasps of delight erupted spontaneously from the audience as we read a few of their brief poems aloud. Here are two of their poems; I don’t know the authors’ names as they were submitted and read out anonymously:


A sun-fed engine

revving in the garden

spinning, turning its wheels

turning up pollen like petrol

all cylinders firing, making

liquid gold, hot fan of wings,

dancing in circles, humming

and humming. Oh crazy

makers, legs burdened with

yellow. Eat the sweetness,

pace your cell, keep the

cylinders firing.



Early morning.


Soon the dogs bark and race

out the door careening past

the hives and down the fields

past the apple trees.



Renee and I were stoked by the evening to grow the bee/poetry interface, and hope to write some new work and evolve our collaboration into a multi-media performance with music and other poets.

And we aspire to inspire, by offering opportunities for those who don’t consider themselves poets to dip their toes into language and vocalizations that express the inestimable insights that bees can bring to our human world.

Perhaps Beekeeping Should Change?

(The post below first appeared as a Letter to the Editor in Bee Culture magazine)

It was an interesting January, bookmarked with the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) meeting at Disneyland at the front end, and ending with the American Bee Research Conference (ABRC) in Tucson, Arizona at the end.

These are quite different meetings. The ABF attracts around 900 beekeepers, many managing commercial operations with upwards of 10-70,000 colonies. The ABRC is much smaller, around 100 participants, mostly honeybee researchers, extension agents and government regulators.

I was left with a sense of optimism from both meetings, unexpected since beekeeping continues to flirt with an epic disaster caused by 1/3 of all colonies dying every year. This has been going on for a decade now, with colonies dying each year and replaced by beekeepers splitting their surviving colonies and building up their numbers again each spring.

But apiculturists are beginning to realize that many of the issues causing the demise of our colonies are outside our control. Of particular concern are a lack of abundant and diverse nectar and pollen sources due to the vast weed-free, single-crop acreages typical in farming today, and heavy use of pesticides by farmers.

This is a long-term problem not easily amenable to change. Even long-term transformation is problematic since political pressure exerted by the beekeeping industry has little influence, because it is a tiny industry lost in the vast magnitude of contemporary corporate agriculture.

I observed two positive trends in hallway conversations that are encouraging. The first involves recognizing that beekeepers’ interests and those of agriculture as it is practiced today are not necessarily compatible. Finding alliances with other organizations with allied values could create a considerably more effective coalition lobbying to shift agriculture in a direction healthier for bees.

Beekeeping could be leading a movement towards more sustainable farming rather than buying into the large scale and high input agricultural systems that too many beekeepers are enmeshed in. If so, there are innumerable interest groups with which to align: organic growers, sustainable farmers, the urban and local food movements and a vast array of environmental groups, among others.

The love-hate relationship beekeepers have developed with pesticide companies might be one alignment worth pondering. Traditionally, we’ve been anti-pesticide, recognizing that many field chemicals are toxic to bees. For that reason, beekeepers often have been in the forefront of movements for stronger pesticide regulation.

Ironically, beekeepers also have become dependent on those same companies to invent and market new chemicals to control bee diseases, pests and parasites. Like the farmers we criticize for overuse and reckless applications of pesticides in fields, we beekeepers ourselves have stepped onto the same chemical treadmill, losing credibility and the high ground in campaigns to reduce pesticide use and implement stronger regulations. It’s common for beekeepers to apply mite-killing chemicals four to six times a year, a sure recipe to induce resistance in the mites through over-application, as well as leaving considerable residues in comb.

Which brings up the second trend I noticed at these meetings, a realization that beekeeping itself has to change. Many, perhaps most, commercial beekeepers are no longer primarily honey producers, but have become pollination managers, moving their bees from crop to crop for the pollination fee, with honey a messy byproduct.

These are enormous mass migrations, with 60% of American bees moved onto just one crop, almonds, each February, about 1.6 million colonies, and many colonies moved three or more times a season to various crops (Canadian beekeepers are somewhat less migratory). These beekeepers have come to depend on the high fees they charge growers for pollination, but income is offset with steep costs for labor, equipment, transport and travel, not to mention stress on bees and beekeepers alike.

I have yet to find an economic analysis that shows migratory beekeeping is the optimal way to make money in the beekeeping industry. Stationary beekeepers who leave their colonies at one apiary site all year, or perhaps move only once and more locally, may not get the high pollination fees, but they also don’t have the costs. Many migratory beekeepers are starting to question whether moving bees is the best way to make a dollar.

Beekeepers also are striving to get off their self-induced chemical treadmill, and flock to sessions at meetings with speakers claiming to be managing their bees free of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics. Some talk about embracing gentler strains of African bees because they swarm often, which breaks the varroa mite’s breeding cycle. Swarm prevention has always been high on a beekeeper’s management agenda, but perhaps that type of out-of-the-box thinking will be necessary to evolve a sustainable beekeeping industry.

Another innovative idea I heard floated was for beekeepers to metamorphosize into pollination habitat managers, contracted by growers to create and maintain habitat, nesting sites and forage for wild bees. Honeybees would be used as supplemental pollinators only when necessary, and at much reduced colony numbers from the current migratory avalanche.

Honeybee health and survival can improve, but only through a combination of agricultural change and the evolution of beekeeping itself.

Planners of beekeeping meetings, here’s a session idea for your next conference: Audacious Ideas for the Future of Beekeeping.

That’s what the survival of beekeeping needs: daring and bold ideas, and the courage to implement them.


Who Keeps Bees?

Who keeps honeybees?

The number of beekeepers globally is statistically elusive, but there are something like 30 million hives worldwide, tended by a few million beekeepers. Some manage a single colony while the largest commercial beekeeping operation runs about 70,000 hives. There also are an inestimable number of semi-managed hives kept in logs in the less developed world, and wild nests from which honey is removed regularly by families who often have cultivated the same feral nest sites for many generations.

What’s notable about who keeps bees is the range of characteristics that are exhibited by beekeepers. A recent set of profiles in BeeScene, the quarterly journal of the British Columbia Honey Producers Association, provided some insights into who keeps bees and why in B.C.

There’s a good mix of males, females and couples in the B.C. beekeeper community, with quite a range of personal and professional backgrounds. Some are retired, some still working, with current or past professions ranging through police officer, physician, designer/manufacture of electronic systems, printer, forester, chef and medical office administrator.

There are a number of traits commonly found in this otherwise diverse group. For one thing, most experienced beekeeping at a young age, or got the idea to keep bees during childhood. Many had grandparents or parents who kept bees, or an eccentric neighbor who let them observe while they went through colonies.

Most began beekeeping in middle age or upon retirement, when the pressures of starting a family and growing a profession abated. At that point memories from childhood served as a reminder of their delayed passion for beekeeping, and they began looking around to buy some bees.

It’s also common for serendipity to step in. One of B.C.’s beekeepers began keeping bees when he was offered two hives in trade for sheep fleeces produced on his hobby farm. Others connected with the bee world through an interest in gardening that brought up the necessity of pollination. A casual conversation with a local beekeeper at a coffee shop often winds up with a new hive in the garden.

The role of a mentor is another frequent theme for beginning beekeepers. Local bee clubs invariably have an old-timer who looks after the newbies, taking them out and passing on the wisdom of the beekeeping ages, then looking in on the new beekeepers to provide advice as their colonies grow and management becomes more complex.

Hobby farming or intensive gardening is another quality shared by many beekeepers, for whom adding bees to the mix is a relatively small jump in time and commitment. Backyard gardening has been a route into bee management for many, especially in recent years as urban agriculture has experienced a boom across North America.

The BeeScene survey also was interesting in asking personal preferences for the two devices that beekeepers invariably use: a hive tool to separate and lift frames for inspection, and the type of fuel they burn in their smoker, used to pacify bees before opening the hive and during an inspection.

Hive tools come in many varieties, each with a subtle variation. Beekeepers ardently defend their chosen tool; the possibilities mentioned in the survey included J-shaped tool (also referred to as “the hooked one”), a serrated bread knife, pocketknives, screwdrivers, pry bars, a welder’s wire brush, and the “old standard” sold at Canadian Tire, with a flat scraper at one end and a curved blade at the other.

Preferred smoker fuel showed a similar creativity and range, including wood shavings, dried grasses, burlap, pinecones, grass clippings, cardboard and dried cow patties.

Another characteristic that beekeepers hold in common, and one that is perhaps their most endearing trait, is an essential quirkiness. It’s an odd hobby to take up, and a difficult path to follow commercially. It takes individuals who notice the nature around them with an unusual attentiveness, and have that peculiar affinity for honeybees that overcomes the hard fact that bees sting.

I’ve had the privilege of travelling globally and meeting beekeepers from the jungles of South America to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, the outback in Australia to Arab villages in Palestine. Invariably, beekeepers are willing to set aside the too-common things that divide us: race, religion, politics, national origin and economic class, to just talk bees.

Perhaps there is a larger message to be learned from beekeepers, the potential for collaboration and collegiality when otherwise distant segments of society come together in fellowship united by common interest. It’s not world peace, but it’s a start.

Mouthparts of the long-tongued bees

mark's photo

At one point early in my career I was recognized as the world’s expert in the labiomaxillary complex of the long-tongued bees, at least among the half-dozen or so entomologists for whom bee mouthparts mattered.

I achieved this obscure recognition as a graduate student at the University of Kansas by dissecting, drawing and analyzing mouthparts from about 100 species across the thousands that make up this diverse bee group. The other bees have short tongues and were studied by another student, who ascended to the short-tongued throne. Tongue length makes a difference to bees, as it determines what flowers they can collect nectar from.

Admittedly obscure, and not generally seen as among my most stellar achievements, this study nevertheless transformed by scientific career, not so much for the scientific findings as for the cultural lessons I learned from my mentor in the project, the eminent bee biologist Charles Michener.

Mich was a prodigy, publishing his first paper on bees when he was 16 and going on to reach the highest levels of academia. In 1948 he had published a paper describing the evolutionary relationships between all the bees, a monumental achievement that formed the bible of bee taxonomy for decades.

What changed everything for me was the basistipital process, a tiny obscure protuberance found on some long-tongued mouthparts but not on others. What made this structure important was that it differed in the highly social honeybees and stingless bees. Tracing its evolution back through more primitive bees suggested that each group had evolved social behavior independently.

If so, this was a career-building discovery, as the evolution of complex social behavior is rare. The key implication of this finding was that sociality had evolved not once but twice among the bees.

Studies of insect social behavior were and still are important areas of research, in part because we too are a highly social species and can learn much about our own evolution and behavior by examining that of the bees.

I quickly realized the important implications of the basistipital process, but my next thought was more terror than exhilaration. If I was right, then Mich’s classic study was incorrect. I would have to tell one of the greatest biologists of our time that he was wrong.

It was with great trepidation, and after considerable procrastination, that I made an appointment to see Mich and brought him my findings. I was well prepared with specimens and my arguments, but was surprised by his reaction.

Mich was fascinated rather than defensive. Without the slightest sign of disappointment he said we needed to reexamine the honeybees and stingless bees to see if other evidence would support changing his 1948 conclusions.

We went on to look at other structures, particularly those on the legs used to collect pollen, and a wide range of social behaviors in the two groups. The evidence was strong, and we published a paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Science (PNAS) proposing the dual origin of highly social behavior among the bees.

I’m a big appreciator of how moments in life can have lasting impact. That appointment with Mich was one of those moments for me, when he was open to contradicting his own classic and much-cited work if the evidence supported it. He modeled for me how science is not a right or wrong polarity but a continually evolving examination of new data. When the data contradict the theory, it’s appropriate to dump even the most hallowed hypothesis.

I also learned from Mich to appreciate those moments of surprise in science when the evidence suggests the hypothesis you have based years of work on is wrong. My own students have been startled expecting me to be disappointed that their experiments have not proven my pet theory to be correct, and I treat their negative data as a eureka moment. It’s in the negative results that progress in science is born.

I learned one more lesson from Mich through the humble basistipital process. He let me write and be the first author on the PNAS paper, even though this was an important publication, I was an obscure student and he was, well, the Great One in bees. I still choke up recalling this incredible kindness, and hope I have emulated his generosity with my own students.

And there is a postscript: about ten years later new molecular techniques became available that allowed comparisons of proteins and even genes between groups of organisms. When applied to the long-tongued bees, the results suggested that Michener’s original taxonomy was correct, and our dual origin proposal perhaps was not accurate. It remains an ongoing issue in social insect biology, with no definitive conclusion yet possible.

My response? I would love to be proven incorrect.

Science at its best is not about ego but about exploration. I was fortunate to be taught that lesson by the mouthparts of the long-tongued bees, and a wonderful mentor.


For excruciating detail see:

Winston, M.L. and C.D. Michener. 1977. Dual origin of highly social behavior among bees. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 74: 1134-1137

Winston, M.L. 1979. The labiomaxillary complex of the long-tongued bees: a comparative study. Univ. Kansas Sci. Bull. 51: 631-667



The Road Not Taken

We all have our life-fork stories, those crossroads where we could have gone one way but chose another.

I was reminded about one of my road-not-taken moments last week, at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings in Portland, Oregon. My 1975 crossroads decision was whether to go to the University of Kansas and study killer honeybees in South America with Chip Taylor, or to Cornell University and work with Richard Root, studying the effects of crop diversity on beneficial insects such as unmanaged wild pollinators.

Killer bees won out, and I’ve never regretted that decision, but was intrigued to see a wave of studies presented at the ESA meeting demonstrating how habitat heterogeneity is important for the diversity and abundance of wild bees.

The role of habitat diversity as a key factor in maintaining wild bee populations has become one of those hot topics that attract the talented scientists who gravitate to the interesting questions. It’s a challenging research area, requiring sophisticated methods to measure and compare habitat heterogeneity with bee diversity and abundance, all in environments heavily altered by the human impact of farming.

Two research approaches have converged with the same result. The first, sampling bees in a range of simple to complex habitats, has clearly demonstrated that contemporary agriculture is barren for wild bees.

Industrial agriculture is a dead zone for beneficial pollinators due to vast acreages of monocropped plantings kept clear of weeds with herbicides, and limited natural habitats adjacent to farmland in which bees can feed and nest. Wild bees rely on plants whose flowering seasons adjoin each other to provide extended availability of nectar and pollen, as well as on undisturbed nesting sites, neither of which are found in and around today’s habitat-deforming farms.

The second line of research has been more experimental, planting bee-friendly hedgerows and ground cover at farm sites and examining whether wild bee populations increase and thrive. The results of these multi-year studies so far have been encouraging, often showing dramatic increases in pollinators as habitat diversifies.

There is another research direction that is difficult but necessary to make the case for habitat reconstruction to enhance pollinator populations: economic analyses. So far, there have been few studies asking that final dollar value question: Does increased diversity and abundance of wild bees lead to more pollen transferred between flowers, to better seed set, to heavier crop weight, and finally to higher yields and increased income sufficient to justify the costs of habitat improvements?

A student in my laboratory, Lora Morandin, did one such economic study a number of years ago in canola fields in northern Alberta. Her research demonstrated that a high variety of wild plants in and near farmland were associated with more diverse and abundant bee populations that increased canola yield. Farmers who planted their entire field earned about $27,000 in profit per farm, whereas those who left a third unplanted for bees to nest and forage in earned $65,000 on a farm of similar size, due simply to better pollination.

The causes of reduced plant biodiversity on farms are clear, and the solutions easily envisioned and implemented. The two most destructive factors for bees are overly large single cropped acreages and the use of herbicides that clean fields of weeds.

The solutions? Increase farm diversity through multiple crops, reduce herbicide use to allow more flowering weeds in farm fields and plant non-crop vegetation adjacent to farmland.

The encouraging news is that state and federal governments in the United States are beginning to fund bee conservation projects designed to increase bee diversity through habitat renovations. The dollar values are small, and the projects highly localized, but it’s a start.

Fundamentally, we’re faced with choosing between habitat-based farming that uses ecosystem services to pollinate crops, or chemically based industrial farming that harms habitats and requires managed pollinators, usually honeybees, to be brought into the crop to do the job that wild bees could probably do better.

If I were choosing today, biodiversity would be the cornerstone upon which I would build a research career. It makes more sense to enhance the natural diversity and services that ecosystems could provide than to stay on today’s treadmill of high input, low profit and environmentally damaging farming.

The Collaboration Room


I received an unusual honor a few weeks ago: Simon Fraser University named a room after me, the Mark L. Winston Collaboration Room.

It generally takes a hefty donation to inspire a university to name a room, a level of financial incentive quite beyond my capacity to give. But the Collaboration Room was named to recognize my tenure as founding director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue as I stepped down from that post.

I was informed of this most generous of gestures at a picnic attended by students, faculty, staff and colleagues, and was moved beyond even my usual tears. This surpassed any honor I had ever imagined, but it was particularly poignant to have the idea of collaboration attached to it.

“Collaboration” is defined as working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals, and requires teamwork, cooperation and collegiality for success. The younger version of myself didn’t exhibit a particularly cooperative nature, but that changed when I entered the world of bees.

Honeybees are consummate collaborators, working together with exquisite coordination to conduct the myriad tasks colonies need to survive and thrive. Take comb building, for example, one of nature’s most complex examples of animal architecture.

Comb construction requires organized efforts by a hiveful of workers, all conducted without the benefit of a foreman or supervisor and no carefully drawn-out architectural plans. First, foraging bees must collect nectar from innumerable flowers and return with it to the nest. There, after being processed into honey and stored in already-constructed cells, the comb-building bees consume and metabolize it into the three hundred plus components of beeswax.

Then many hundreds or even thousands of workers, each acting independently, secrete the beeswax as thin flakes from overlapping plates in their abdomens. They each use their jaws and spines on their legs to work collaboratively with other bees to shape the wax flakes into precise hexagonal cells, within .05 mm tolerance in diameter and .002 mm in cell wall thickness.

Each bee contributes a small bit of wax and a few minutes of work to a cell, and then moves away to let a co-worker in with fresh wax, who picks up where the previous worker left off.  Apparently each worker can perceive the stage of construction at each new location and contributes whatever is needed for that cell. Thus, a single cell is built cooperatively by many bees stepping in and contributing, all without being told what to do by any overseer.

Perhaps the most extreme example of bee collaboration is pollination, because it crosses species boundaries. The environment through which bees forage would not exist without the actions of each individual bee pollinating flowers, one by one, a remarkable lesson for us in the benefits of collaborating with nature rather than managing it into submission.

It’s a simple formula: bees pollinate flowers, and the plants provide nectar and pollen to feed the bees. Bees wouldn’t exist without flowering plants, and most plants wouldn’t exist without the accumulated pollinating efforts of innumerable individual bees globally. Sixty five per cent of all plants and about one-third of crops require or benefit from bee pollination, by honeybees and the over 20,000 species of wild bees, making the actions of gazillions of individual bees a crucial element of almost all terrestrial habitats.

Oddly, the intense cooperation of honeybees working with each other and with the flowers they pollinate reminds us that individual actions matter, not only for the bees but also for the larger sphere they inhabit. Colonies could not function without the small but innumerable contributions of myriad individuals, and the same is true for human societies.

It’s not surprising that I ended up at a centre for dialogue given how absorbed I became in the collaborative example set by honeybees. The Collaboration Room could be nicknamed “The Hive,” because it was observing bees that forged my inclination to work with others.

I know every time I walk into the Collaboration Room my throat will catch with emotion in appreciation of having it carry my name, but also with the deepest of respect for the bees that brought me to collaboration and dialogue.

The Book is Out!


cover Bee Time

Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive is more or less officially out. Hard copies have arrived in most bookstores and can be found for sale on the usual websites; the e-book will be available 6 October from Amazon and Harvard Press.

Coming up next is a whirlwind round of bookstore readings and signings, talks at various venues (for a schedule, see http://winstonhive.com/?page_id=300) and hopefully lots of effusive reviews. I’m particularly excited about the “Independent Bookstore Tour” at my favorite meccas for discerning readers: Munro’s in Victoria, Elliott Bay in Seattle, Powell’s in Portland and the Boulder Book Store in Boulder.

I wasn’t expecting to have this experience again. I’ve written five books previously, the last published in 2002, and I recall proclaiming to my editor at Harvard Press that Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone was my last book; I was done. He smiled that “I’ve heard this before from writers” smile, and just said simply: “Writers write.”

It’s transcendent experience, publishing a book, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, much like I imagine bungee jumping or skydiving. It takes a great act of faith to leap, believing that the cord will hold, the parachute open, the book not fall flat on its literary face.

It’s a moment to appreciate, this publishing instant, particularly poignant because it is so fleeting. I look back at past books from a distance, with little memory of actually writing those tens of thousands of words. It’s as if there was a ghostwriter at work in a parallel universe whose book managed to jump the space/time continuum with my name on it.

Bee Time has been particularly meaningful in both connecting and reconnecting. The connecting has been between my time as a bee researcher and my current work in the Centre for Dialogue. This book is about bees but emerged from and is heavily flavored by my time in dialogue, making whole these seemingly disparate career streams.

The reconnecting has been with bees and their keepers, both entities from which I had lost touch in recent years when dialogue dominated my time. I’ve been back out to the hives recently, and refreshed my relationships with many old beekeeping friends as I’ve accepted a few invitations to speak at bee meetings.

I’m enormously grateful to bees, and to beekeeping, but my deepest gratitude remains reserved for readers. I read, a lot, and appreciate the love of language and ideas in others.

Readers have inspired me to write better, think harder, and care more. It’s a deep pleasure, this stringing of words together. The challenge of the empty pages needing to be filled remains a profound thrill.

I’ll forget Bee Time some day, similar to how my other books eventually dipped below my personal radar, but now is still that sweetest of literary moments. The book is poised, readings and signings have been scheduled, the first reviews are emerging, and the writing is still fresh enough to believe that I did indeed write that book.

Yet, a few thoughts for a next book have started whispering as intruders into the Bee Time space, still only as brief phrases not yet formed into anything like a full sentence. All too soon the lessons from the hive will have receded, supplanted by the next set of phrasings and sentences forming themselves into paragraphs, then chapters.

Writers write, with all praise to that sublime muse of creation that blesses us with the urge, and occasionally the ability, to articulate.