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Opening Talk - Learning from the Bees 2019 Berlin ~ 15 minutes, 

Jonathan Powell- Trustee of the Natural Beekeeping Trust




When opening a conference it is customary to have a big picture - a frame work if you like in which the many different talks can sit within. In addition, Learning from the Bees has always been about taking a different perspective - that of the bees - and looking beyond just scientific discovery, but also including art, literature and spiritual expression.


So with that in mind I would like to invite you into a thought experiment, and by doing so I hope we can explore the phenomenon so eloquently put by Max Planck - “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change."


Let us consider a car production line

Automobile assembly line production.jpg

"The goal of the bee is life, and the purpose of life is life."

It has a starting point of raw materials, machines, and human effort which repeat certain production processes and it has a goal: repeatedly producing identical cars to exactly the same specification each time.


The goal is production, the process is linear, and it is not too different from how many people approach most tasks, even our education systems are aligned to this way of thinking, and by that same token it is a way many approach their beekeeping. 


"I’m very confident in saying that the goal of the bee would NOT be to produce honey they could bottle up and send it to market to make a few Euros"

I know this because every time I mention I don’t take honey from bees people look at me as if I’m some sort of alien - surely the point of keeping bees is to produce honey, they say. And this is particularly ironic for me, since my grandfather, who taught me as a child to keep bees, won the world cup for honey at Crystal Palace in 1929.

However, when thinking of bees we may have other goals, including: varroa tolerant bees, conservation of bee species, creating a business around bees, all of which which may also be problematic.


This linear production process thinking fills every part of our lives and thinking:


Inputs -> Outputs

Effort -> Reward

Problem -> Solution

But what if the bees were running the production line? What would their goal be? I’m very confident in saying that the goal of the bee would NOT be to produce honey they could bottle up and send it to market to make a few Euros. 


No, the goal of the bee is sustaining their life force, a life force they have evolved over 45 million years, a life force that has slowly changed but, remarkably, has never been extinguished. One could easily argue that bees are far more evolved than humans who appear to be heading very quickly to an extinction event of their own making.


So for the bee, their goal  is not a linear production line, but a feedback loop - constantly sustaining itself - Life … life … life.


The goal of the bee is life, and the purpose of life is life.


Let us look at the loop. To support their life force the bees undertake endeavours. At a simple level this may be making wax, mating, guarding the hive, scouting for new nest sites, and the results of these endeavours weave together to sustain life and the next generation.


Looking a little deeper at these endeavours, we could say that they have three different characteristics:


Critical - to the existence of the colony

Time Consuming - to perform requiring the endeavours of many bees


Time Sensitive - must be performed at a certain time of the year


Some endeavours may have all three characteristics. So, for example, the collection of honey is critical to the survival of the hives, it is extremely time consuming to collect store and process, taking  literally millions of hours, but its collection is time sensitive - nectar is is only available in quantity for brief periods in the year. Another example is winter clustering, something bees rarely do in a warm tree hive! - it, too, has all three characteristics.

So, when a hive suffers some sort of stress or loses balance it must prioritise endeavours to ensure its survival, even though this may have some negative consequences. For example, during winter a hive may need to cluster in a thin walled box hive on the ground to stay alive but as a result they are not maintaining the hygiene of the hive and exposed comb may become mouldy. This shows how a prioritised endeavour, especially one that has all three characteristics, may require others to be dropped. In issue 12 of Natural Bee Husbandry Torben Schiffer offers evidence that bees dramatically drop hygienic behaviour when their honey is taken.


The circular life force of endeavours is part of something I call ‘bee-ness”, which includes their spirit or essence; It is molecular biology, their collective map of this world, their dances, their defensive behaviour, their interpretation of the electromagnetic spectrum, smell, vibration, atmosphere - all that is known and unknown about the honey bee.


Think of a world without honey bees - you have just subtracted beeness. I do not have a syntax to to really describe bee-ness. Instead, as with all sentient spirits you need to drop out of thinking mind and into the feeling heart to know bee-ness. 

Bee-ness is shaped to fit its local environment, which itself is made of millions of relationships, objects, elements, forces, desires, and spirit circles of other life forms. We can think of this encapsulation as a donut or RING surrounding bee-ness.

Bee endeavours have three characteristics:

  • Critical

  • Time Consuming

  • Time Sensitive


The ring provides the medium through which bee-ness passes. When there is a great fit between bee-ness and the ring, the stronger the life force and vitality are. The ring and bee-ness are symbiotic and shape each other. One example of this is the flowers that cover our landscapes.


Bee-ness is supported by the relationships that make the ring: climate, flowers, animals, insects, trees, mould, bacteria, gravity, water, earth, moon, sun … everything. These relationships are constantly adjusting, finding balance. 


Inside the ring the life forces of bee-ness are shaped and powered by the accuracy and perfection of natural selection. Bee colonies either slowly evolve within their ring or naturally devolve if the relationships with the ring break down.


At this point it is worth considering that there is no single bee-ness, because every location has a different ring.


You could think of these as different races of Apis Mellifera, but bee-ness can be much more accurately tuned;  in the UK there were  until recently the North Lincolnshire (Boston) bees and the North Yorkshire high moor (Cleveland) bees separated by just a few 10’s of kilometers. Black bee specialists will measure over 20 different characteristics of their bees from the wax capping properties to morphology of the wings. The bees in Tom Seeley’s Arnot forest have a different ring to bees on the African Cape and therefore possess different characteristics.

So far I have left out humans in the discussion of the ring, because we are very new to these relationships. If a 30cm ruler represented the time-line of bees on this planet, modern beekeeping would be the last 0.0006mm of that ruler.


Today, the ring includes our beekeeping desires - do we want honey, do we want to treat for varroa, is the design of the hive good for honey production, do we want to make a business out of selling bee products, or even queens - the mother of life? 


And there are also other new relationships. Despite our very recent arrival we have made enormous and rapid changes to the ring. With our large brains we have introduced agriculture, changed landscapes, created cities, laws, policies, factories, transportation, pesticides and our linear production methodology has brought us quick riches. In the 70’s the fields in the UK turned yellow with oil seed rape production, then later blue for linseed  simply because of farming policies and markets changing. We now have extensive pollution and rapid climatic change. We call this, The Great Acceleration or The Anthropogenic Era - a time when humans have altered the geology and ecology of this world, these rings. I feel cold fear when I think of the human endeavours behind these terms.


The rings have changed on every level - global to local, and changed quickly, but bee-ness cannot change that quickly. The strong fit of bee-ness to the ring is weakening and the rebalancing endeavours that sustain life falter. This is why projects which simply encourage people to help bees by keeping bees will always fail, and indeed make matters worse. You cannot help the bees by making a production line of bee colonies and dropping them into a failing ring. This is pure greenwash  - it makes things much worse.

I do not support the free trade of bees, or for that matter any living biological material. This is a "free" trade with terrible costs which has weakened the connection of the bees to their local ring, and has also been responsible for the spread of diseases killing millions of trees across the world.

Very large excavators at work in one of

It pained me to see a picture of green forest shredded to make way for a grey opencast mine. This image stimulated the thoughts in this talk. It will take 500 years to repair that environment to make it suitable for bee-ness again - the production lines and products fuelled by the coal will be gone in 15 years. 


Using this way of looking at bees has, as Max Planck promised, changed how I see bees and my relationship to bees. The changes in my thoughts are extensive but I will just have time to outline one of these, above the obvious one of not harvesting honey.


We cannot change bee-ness


Bee-ness changes very slowly, it has travelled a very long path and while the bee can be very elastic by rebalancing their endeavours to changes in the ring, there is a final limit. Without changes in human behaviour bee-ness will join the many other spirits that are disappearing from this world.


We cannot breed a better bee to cope with the changes in the ring … we cannot hope to understand or match the accuracy of natural selection. Breeding dark bees, hygienic bees, passive bees, honey producing bees are all linear production line solutions:


Problem -> Solution  

The problems bees face are not a fault or weakness in bee-nees.  

So if the bees lose vitality, where should be put our human endeavors?


Here are some words by Wendell Berry to help and inspire us ...


If we will have the wisdom to survive, to stand like slow-growing trees on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it… then a long time after we are dead the lives our lives prepare will live here, their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides, fields and gardens rich in the windows. 


The river will run clear, as we will never know it, and over it, birdsong like a canopy....


On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest, an old forest will stand, its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.


The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.

Families will be singing in the fields.

In their voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground....


Memory, native to this valley, will spread over it like a grove, and memory will grow into legend, legend into song, song into sacrament. 


The abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds, will be health and wisdom and indwelling light. 


This is no paradisal dream.

Its hardship is its possibility.

Copyright  2012 by Wendell Berry, from New Collected Poems. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press


The message of the bees is clear - they create life, and to do so they need clean air, fresh water, rich soil, abundance of flowers, ancient trees, respect and acknowledgement of the sentience of all forms of life.

The message of the bees is clear - they create life, and to do so they need clean air, fresh water, rich soil, abundance of flowers, ancient trees, respect and acknowledgement of the sentience of all forms of life. If we lose bee-ness we also lose part of our heart: the tears of joy seeing a swarm take over a tree hive you have laboured to make, the fear of the venomous sting, the sadness when a hive dies, and the delicate warmth when you cradle a newborn swarm in your hand.


So as we start this conference I would like on behalf of the bees to ask this question:


“What do we want - production or life? And what is our response? 


Take time to sit with the bees - what are they saying? Time is short - I do not not just mean the time of my talk, or this conference. You could say as humans we have a critical issue, which will be time consuming, and is time sensitive - so let us deploy our human endeavours wisely. At this conference, let us use our time together to listen, to give, share, build up, give hope and to seek life in all that we do. But let us also not forget the sacrifice and ultimate love offering of bees when defending their purpose - the sting. We will sometimes be called on to also fight to preserve life over production.

Jonathan Powell

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