Friday, October 5, 2007

Very Good Progress

Today, I went to a "First Friday" continental breakfast gathering at the university where I work and, in a short 10 minute conversation with two colleagues, I made important progress on my bee-focused Global Issues course for Spring 2009. First, the man who guides and advises the faculty and staff on the use of instructional technology is very interested in helping me apply for equipment funding for this project. This whole conversation was rather interesting in context I think. This man spends his days helping people learn how to use new instructional software, advanced computer technology in the classroom, and purchase GPS units for course use, yet, we spent the time talking about hives, supers, beekeeping clothing and the like. But as he says, "This is also instructional technology as well." He also expressed interest in learning beekeeping with me.

My second conversation was with the Religious Brother who maintains a vegetable garden for his fellow Brothers on campus. I told him about my project and asked if we might discuss the possibility of putting a hive in or near his garden. His response surprised me. He said he's always wanted bees for his garden primarily for their honey. (I assured him that the Brothers could have all the honey-- I am a diabetic and rarely consume honey myself.) He also expressed a desire that the students go farther with my project than just beekeeping.

He said wryly, "I need weeding done and they could learn composting...Right now they could plant my garlic as well... Many of our students have never worked in a garden."

This idea of having students also work with the plants the bees forage on is engaging. The students would have hands-on experience with the plant environment the bees depend on as well.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Organic Beekeeping?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a short piece on my thoughts concerning the terms: natural, organic and sustainable. Since that time I've explored what these words mean in the world of beekeeping and was surprised to find that they are such "contested concepts". Not only is there disagreement over what the concepts mean in the beekeeping world but it seems like there is something else at stake as well, the right to use the term as a rhetorical weapon and the right to call oneself an organic beekeeper.

Ross Conrad, in his book Natural Beekeeping, distinguishes between those beekeepers who espouse a liberal definition of organic to those who use the term much more conservatively. (p 38-9) The liberals would argue that an organic beekeeper is simply one who manages her/his hives without synthetic chemicals or antibiotics. The question of where one's bees forage would not be used to define whether one is an "organic beekeeper" or not. Conservatives, on the other hand,want the term organic applied to a much more "exclusive club" of beekeepers: those who not only manage their bees without synthetic chemicals or antibiotics but do not let their bees forage in areas where these chemicals are used. (Quite a difficult task!)

I have found recently that this is not the only front where beekeepers battle over the use of these concepts. There are some (like the leadership of the Organic Beekeeper email list) who apply organic only to those bees that are managed without any chemical interventions whether it be "hard" chemicals (e.g. antibiotics) or "soft" alternatives (e.g. essential oils). These beekeepers are opposed by others who believe that the use of chemicals in itself does not preclude a beekeeper from the label "organic" if the chemicals used are themselves organic as with essential oils.

The debates over these concepts in the beekeeping world fascinate me and lead me to ask a whole set of other questions concerning the capital used in fighting these battles. This seems to be one direction my ethnographic research will take.