Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bee Activism

Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society that you wanted. How would you live, you personally, in that society? Start living that way now!-- Paul Goodman, sociologist.

I've been monitoring various beekeeping lists and forums over the last few months as CCD continues to ravage bees all over the country. Recently, on one of these lists, some individuals called for "bee activists" to rise up out of the midst of the beekeeping community and lobby and fight for more public awareness, government funding and scientific research to find answers to the current "bee" crisis. It might seem presumptuous for a person like me to weigh in on this issue. I've read much about bees, spoken with beekeepers, monitored all these internet forums but, as of yet, have not practiced beekeeping myself. But I am also a student of social/political movements and the sociology of science and these areas are as much involved in the question of how to approach "bee activism" as the actual husbandry of bees is.

Recently on Bee-l, a poster mocked the users of small cell foundation for ignoring current scientific research that finds small cells as having no significant effect on controlling varroa mites and/or the resulting virus that weakens and kills bees. The poster compared small cell supporters to followers of a "religious cult" who continue to hold on to their beliefs even in the face of scientific evidence. I won't go into the difficulty methodologically of using one or two experiments for drawing definite conclusions or the whole question of how scientific change actually occurs. (I'll leave the reader to read the works of Geiryn, Kuhn, or Feierabend.) My issue here is with the total inconsistency of such a poster, for "small cell" beekeepers are not the only people in the beekeeping world who tend to ignore scientific research. Large-scale commercial beekeepers do this all the time but in the name of short-term profit, labor saving efficiencies, and the "realities of the market". When a commercial firm says, "I know my use of chemicals is creating a stronger, resistant mite, but I won't survive unless I use chemicals", they are also ignoring, in a very pragmatic fashion, scientific research as well. And if I was a commercial beekeeper, who must support a family and pay debts, I suppose I would argue the very same thing!

It seems to me that Phil Chandler is correct. Given the above "reality" for commercial beekeepers, the survival of honey bees as a species cannot simply depend on commercial beekeepers, and government funding for scientific research focused on keeping "factory" beekeeping afloat. Bee survival may also depend on getting more and more individuals to approach beekeeping as a "cottage industry" where labor-intensive, "inefficient", sustainable husbandry is possible. It is modeling and "evangelizing" this idea that might sustain the honey bee.

A "bee" social movement approached this way doesn't need the resources of the full-time professional lobbyist but of sideline and hobby beekeepers maintaining colonies, and having their activities visible enough so that other potential backyard beekeepers might join this "crusade" to save the bee. You do not need (or want) everyone in a community to beekeep, just a small critical mass of individuals who provide bees with an environment where these insects have a better chance of surviving and adapting. Perhaps these local beekeepers could even form a "Queen Rearing Cooperative" to lessen the ill effects of any inbreeding as well.

A colleague and friend of mine recently attended Dr. Marla Spivak's beekeeping extension course at the University of Minnesota. Spivak has 30 or so hives right there on the St. Paul campus where they are legal, but across the river in Minneapolis, these hives would be in violation of city ordinances. According to my friend, the illegality of beekeeping in Minneapolis didn't keep Spivak from urging that city's residents to keep hives there as well. It seems to Spivak that the keeping of even a few hives is a small but important step toward honey bee survival, and if this means violating the law, so be it. This type of apicultural, civil disobedience intrigues and inspires me.