Holding Space for the Relationships Bees Choose
Earlier this summer, I had a beautiful encounter with a pair of bumblebees while I was assembling a set of experimental bee hotels. I’d set the completed models outside to photograph, and almost instantly the bees arrived to begin exploring. They didn’t stay long enough to capture in photos, but when I’ve gone back to that work space, I’ve had numerous encounters where bumblebees have landed on my hands and arm just long enough to do a little dance before flying off.
When we acknowledge that some bees are thought to recognize individual humans and other animals, these encounters take on a different tone. If this is truly the case, what possibilities exist for individual humans to change the direction of relationships between bees and humanity? In the reality of farmed bee labor and wild bee extermination, how do we hold space for the relationships bees choose?
And dare we grant honeybees the autonomy to choose whether to share their products with us?
Five Thousand Years of Farming Design
When discussing honeybee welfare with conventional beekeepers, the benefits of modern hive design and its evolution over time are a topic that continue to arise. To me, this seems fair.
More traditional designs like skeps often involved the total destruction of the hive in order to extract the honey. These models also prevented the beekeeper from inspecting the hive for disease or parasites, which is the primary reason they are now banned in most parts of the U.S. Modern hives can be routinely checked for fitness of the hive and do not have to be destroyed for honey to be collected, although some honeybee-keepers will burn their hives off at the end of the season rather than keep them through the winter.
Rehashing this history over and over again, and hearing contemporary honeybee-keepers’ insistence that they do not intentionally want to harm their bees, I have found myself wondering what the next stage in hive evolution will be.
More than that, I have realized that the predominant theme of commercial honeybee hive design throughout history has so far been the theft of honey, only recently rivaled by concern for bee welfare. But can this dynamic be completely revolutionized—where bee welfare is the primary design concern, and the collection of bee-related products—on their terms—is only secondary? Is it possible to design a hive in which bees are given the option to provide products like honey or pollen for species other than themselves?
Honey collection at present seems far too invasive for me to imagine an ethical way to do it. Bees are convinced their home is being destroyed when smoked out, and then robbed of the food they anticipate being able to consume over winter. I’m not sure where to even begin with sorting out a humane way to do that. However, I am curious about the collection of another bee product, and that’s pollen.
Pollen traps are affixed to modern hives to provide an alternative entrance to the hive where bees returning from collecting pollen are made to climb through screens or other obstacles that remove the pollen from their bodies. Out of necessity for hive survival, these alternative entrances can only be used for a few days at a time. The bees depend on the pollen for its nutritional value, and must be able to carry it into the hive.
While looking into the design of different bee pollen traps, I stumbled upon this beekeeper who demonstrates a hive where no blockages are used. His hive is designed in such a way that bees can both enter through the pollen trap and through an unobstructed entrance.
Intelligence & Meaning
Is the bees choice to use the pollen trap intentional? Given that bees are incredibly intelligent and collective-thinkers, I find it difficult to believe it cannot be an intentional choice for some of them to enter into the hive through the pollen trap. A species which so magnificently orchestrates its hierarchical distribution of labor and is renowned for both sensory perception and performative communication that empower their capacity to function with swarm intelligence seems, to me, unlikely to simply mistakenly or unconsciously enter a pollen trap more than once.
If this is the case then, if the bees are capable of choosing whether to enter into a trap which robs them of the by-products of their labor or an entrance which allows them to keep it all to themselves, and they are choosing to enter through the trap, what does this choice mean?
I can think of a handful of possibilities. First, there is the possibility that I am completely wrong. Bees may enter the trap by mistake or without understanding or caring what happens to them when they do. Second, they could be conceptualizing this behavior as an appeasement of our species’ manipulation of their hive and theft of honey. In essence, they understand our relationship to the trap and the hive, and they hope that providing us with pollen will decrease our interaction with them. Third, it could be entirely benevolent or out of gratitude for our interactions with their hive. We are providing them with housing and extra food during winter, and no wise honeybee-keeper who wishes to keep her hive alive would take all their honey. Fourth, they are appropriating the pollen trap technology for themselves, perhaps under the perception that they can store pollen for future use—present-day trap designs I’m aware of make this impossible. I’m sure there are other possibilities as well.
My apprehension around bee exploitation is the fruit of my veganism, which in turn is rooted in so many things, but among them is a Marxist consideration of animal laborers as exploited producers of capital. Just as beekeeping does not have to be about stealing honey, neither do human-animal relations have to be about exploitation, abuse, profit, or death. The possibility of honeybees freely producing by-products (other than pollination) for other species is a concept that I have not previously encountered. Likewise, designing hives with an exploration of this possibility in mind seems a logical next step to modern trends of considering bee welfare in hive design.
In contemplating post-agriculture worlds, what is to happen to honeybees who have been domesticated over thousands of years? Obviously I am not advocating for the selective breeding and micro-management of hives as humans have been doing. However, is it possible that given the choice, some colonies would choose to live in man-made hives? Is it possible that a non-exploitative relationship can develop here?
To best test the bees’ intention in using pollen traps, it seems to me that we should take as many manipulative or exploitative factors out of the equation as possible. In essence, I am curious how bees would react with a pollen trap if no honey were collected, no queen manipulation occurred, and no smoking was used on the hive.
In this scenario, if the bees continued to enter the hive through the pollen trap, then either they are entering by mistake, without understanding or care, out of benevolence or gratitude, to store the pollen for later, or for some other reason I haven’t thought up. If however they stop entering through the pollen trap, then it seems possible that their ‘gift’ of bee pollen through the trap was actually an appeasement related to our interactions with the hive. To test these hypotheses, it would be necessary to develop a long-term relationship with the hive over several seasons, likely at least the full life-cycle of one queen. Although, realistically, if the use of the trap is reactive to human manipulation of hives which has developed over centuries, creating an ancestral memory divergent from this will take significantly longer.
I imagine that if pollen were being stored by the bees in the trap, they would want to consume it over the winter. From an ethical standpoint, until a clearer idea of their motivations behind using the trap can be understood, harvesting bee pollen from the trap before the end of winter seems out of the question to me.
I understand the moral line many vegans take against use of any animal by-products, but I think the kind of hive and bee relationship I am interested in exploring here really pushes at the boundary of what kind of mutually beneficial, non-exploitative relationships are even possible between bees and humans, and where or if a line is to be drawn between technology and the freely contracted labor exchange between species. Since discovering the video I posted above, I have heard from several vegetarian beekeepers who employ a similar technique to harvest pollen. The dreams of a consensual labor relationship between bees and humans seem already a reality, so how far dare we let them grow?
After thousands of years of taking their honey, destroying their hives, and killing them, what would it mean if they chose to give us pollen?
Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org