By Robert Marns
Image: “Experimental visualisation of floral electric field using electrostatic dusting” (Clarke and Roberts, 2017)
What silliness to judge insects – so ancient, so diverse, so accomplishes, so successful, so beautiful, so astonishing, so mysterious, so unknown – by criteria they can never meet and about which they could not care! What silliness to disregard their accomplishments and focus instead on their deficiencies! What pitiful poverty of imagination to see them as resources merely for our self-knowledge! (Raffles, 2010, p. 169)
From dusting off my grandfather’s dog-eared beekeeping guide, to the crystallising honey in my cupboard, to the enthusiasm of a friend who watches a bumblebee fill their pollen baskets whilst visiting a flowering basil plant, to news of colony collapse disorder decimating populations of honey bees (Apis mellifera), to marvelling at beyond-ancient cave paintings of honey-hunting, to watching a solitary mining bee return to its dug out hole in the earth, to finding a swarm settled in a bush outside the Arts and Social Sciences library in late spring, it is hard to know where to begin, or indeed, enter, this hive of fascination, admiration, and the unexplained realities of the 25,000 different known species that we commonly name, in English, the ‘bee’. Indeed, what can geography bring to this varied and ongoing conversation with and about our worldly co-producers?
Bees are frequently encountered as canaries in the coalmine of the present. They are often invoked under representative schemas common to environmental activism and advocacy that frame speaking for as the limit of possible ‘speech’ of nature. Nature can’t speak, so we must; bees are passive victims of our violence (ex. herbicides, pesticides, intensive agriculture, etc) and so need defending. One risk, however, in speaking for bees, and, ipso facto, nature, is that we unknowingly reproduce ourselves, that is, humans, as somehow unique from and distinct to the worlds bees come to represent. We rely upon our abstractions to encounter these creatures, rather than learn to listen to them, and their distinctness from us, but also from the innumerable agencies and voices that make up other-than-human worlds. Speaking for them reminds one of Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ where appeals to representative approaches re-commit a violence of silencing, an epistemic violence which makes nature—albeit through a care for the narrowing of the future in ecocide—the ultimate Other.
But, might the bee speak to us as we seek to understand the violence of our ecological present as a forceful claustrophobia of the future, a slow violence perpetuated, felt, responded to, and creatively mediated constantly by humans and nonhumans alike? Maybe, in asking such a question—and so following a continuous theme in the Society and Space course—we might begin to become aware of our abstractions, and perhaps even remedy, some of the “epistemological and ontological biases that are remnants of the colonial conquest of nature” (Sheikh, 2019, p.14) that provide the lens through which the bee (and nature) is often encountered and understood.
This question of the ‘speech’ of the bee, when introduced to the frame of the ecological witness, takes on a new significance, and provides the central question for this research.
Refusing this silencing, perhaps there could be a listening which would intervene in the teleological bureaucratic anthropocentric activism, of managing ecosystem ‘service’ management and of greening capitalism on the one hand, or certain extinction on the other. Becoming able to sense their active involvement and creativity in the present could force a stuttering of our certainties about either our hope or our doom, opening up a fragile liminal space where something new can be expressed and learned.
Several common narratives of bees ‘speaking’ suggest themselves as worthy of scrutiny. Self-evident, first, is the long marvelled communicative capacities of bees: their ‘waggle-dance’, which through a series of movements communicates distance and location of food sources. Moreover, pushing beyond a conceptualisation of this communication as mere automated , de-subjectified, non-creative and only reactive communication, the ‘spasmodic dance’ of the bee contains no information but something like the “dancing mood”, or again the ‘jerking dance’ which is considered as a expression of joy and contentment, or finally the collective nest dance which is concerned in a social process of shared decision making (Raffles, 2010, p. 167).
Or consider colony collapse disorder. Contained within this framing and storying of whole bee hives suddenly dying is already a recognition that the hive is itself a nervous system which responds to its contexts and represents itself. Yet, this is often narrated as a sort of computational response to a virus or ecological disturbance, which the bee is not actively engaged in responding to, but only merely undergoing an automatic reaction towards.
Another example is the assumption of individuality, where the ‘bee’ is understood as individual insect, a singular organism encased in their singular body rather than the recognising the bee as the superorganism of the hive, this fact, once again, demonstrates the projection of colonial abstractions of the interior and exterior, which the bee in its very being undermines.
A final example is how work on bees often focuses on the social bees,yet 90% of bees are solitary and non-social, and so less productive for humans as they do not make honey. They are categorized as less evolved using categories of sociality, communication and complexity to measure their place in nature. Such categories overlook the differences they express, like being efficient pollinators, which is now understood to involve a process of the bee sensing the electromagnetic field of the flower, possibly to assess the desirability of individual flowers (Clarke and Robert, 2017) from one another.
These examples bring first an awareness of how we are continuously caught up in categorizations and abstractions, which have very ‘real’ and practical outcomes as these notions determine how Western beekeeping literally ‘frames’ bees, directing their activity towards human hands, tastes and desires. Whilst Western science has directed research at the most charismatic species of the bee, the point I wish to highlight is a move to recognise the non-human as resolutely creative rather than only reactive, shifting from only representing ecological distress to where some of the bees representations, and how it shares these with us, come to matter in politics. Here, an ethics of recognition of abstractions is sought to enable different encounters with the nonhuman other. Furthermore, developing a sense of this active involvement shakes sedimented understandings of power and agency within this crisis. Perhaps, traversing from disregard to appreciation and intimate recognition could change what we understand is at stake, a new listening beyond abstractions may provide some assistance of how to respond to ecological unravelling.
Clarke, D., Morley, E. and Robert, D., 2017. The bee, the flower, and the electric field: electric ecology and aerial electroreception. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 203(9), pp.737-748.
Povinelli, E.A., 2016. Geontologies: A requiem to late liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Raffles, H., 2010. Insectopedia. New York: Vintage.
Sheikh, S., 2018. The Future of the Witness: Nature, Race and More-than-Human Environmental Publics. Kronos, 44(1), pp.145-162.