Arts

UW professor's book tells us to respect the bees

Swan defends the honeybee’s legitimacy against public indifference in her powerful new book.

Image By: Photo Courtesy of Penn State University Press

The humble honeybee has long lifted a heavy symbolic load. In the Bible, they conjure the specter of an enemy: “They compassed me about like bees ... but the Lord helped me.” In Tibet, monks have long considered their arrival a sign of good luck.

In the 1705 poem “The Grumbling Hive,” Bernard Mandeville compares all of humanity to a “Spacious hivewell stockt with Bees” and asks moralizers to act like bees and join the buzz of commerce. It’s true that honeybees –– their one-minded work ethic balanced by a collective groan –– do make a very apt stand-in for the market economy. But what happens when capitalism outpaces the honeybee?

If Heather Swan has it her way, technology won’t make the capricious honeybee obsolete quite yet. She’s an environmental literature professor here at UW-Madison and the author of a new book, “Where Honeybees Thrive.” I’ve spent the last few days curled up on my Madison couch reading Swan’s little book. It’s a meditative call for us humans to reevaluate our relationship with the yellow, furry pollinators we’ve long wrung the symbolic and agricultural value out of. It begs us to talk about honeybees in ways that don’t simply mirror the cold rationality of newspaper leads like “Scientists have proven ...” and “New research shows ...”

But let’s ignore that advice and take a look at the hard research anyway: It’s not encouraging. A study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture found that the national bee population fell 23 percent between 2008 and 2013. Wisconsin saw a population dip that exceeded 60 percent during the 2014-’15 winter season alone.

The culprit: Colony Collapse Disorder. Nobody yet knows the exact cause of CCD, but research suggests that hive malnutrition and the use of pesticides have contributed. Whatever the cause, the great “Grumbling Hive” is growing silent.

In an early chapter, Swan travels to a slice of Chinese countryside where more than a quarter million pear trees were planted in the 1950s. Pesticide was sprayed “seven or eight times a year” on the monocrop orchards through 2012. Then all the bees died.

The rest of the book is a digressive attempt to make sense of that grim excursion. She covers honeybee-inspired art and photography — I bet you’ve never seen a photograph that makes you want to count the hairs on a honeybee’s thorax. She also writes about the sensual joys of being a beekeeper. (Give the smoker a puff, coax the bees off their comb.) Systems like our monocrop agriculture model and our lush lawns are deservedly skewered.

But instead of ending the book with a list of policy prescriptions, she tells an anecdote. Swan walks out of her Madison-area home to inspect her hives “after days of wind-chill readings of fifty below.” She knocks on the box, assuming they’ve died in the extreme cold. However, when she hears them, she weeps, moved by their incredible resilience. “It was a very good reminder that together, and with love, we can survive just about anything.”

It’s a shame that Swan still has to defend the honeybee’s legitimacy against public indifference, but that doesn’t detract from the power of her new book, and its simple message: “It seems like a privilege to share the world with creatures like these.”

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