Monday, September 29, 2008

Presentation at Sociologists of Minnesota

The following is a rough draft of the presentation I will giving Thursday at the Sociologists of Minnesota annual meeting.

The following presentation is an elaboration of parts of a sabbatical proposal (Canaries in a Coal Mine, 2007) I submitted at Saint Mary’s University. I planned to spend my sabbatical designing a honeybee focused section of SMU’s Global Issues course. Global Issues is an interdisciplinary core offering required of all juniors. While my sabbatical was rejected, I’ve continued work on this project.

I teach the interdisciplinary course called Global Issues and every semester I am faced with the same problem: How do I engage students to consider important macro-structural global issues without losing them? An understanding of the problems and benefits surrounding economic and environmental globalization is a must for any informed citizen, yet for many students, these issues are too abstract and distant from them. Their eyes glaze over with each discussion of IMF policy, or the impact of neo-conservative ideology. I do well enough on my evaluations so I could ignore this problem and coast to retirement, but I have this gut feeling, not found in any of the “positivist” assessment tools used to evaluate the course, that my students are just not getting it.
Developmentally, my students are very concrete thinkers, so I am left with the problem of getting them to somehow ponder very abstract concepts and processes. One approach to my dilemma is to get my students to cultivate “the sociological imagination”: the ability to perceive that one’s inner and day-to-day life is very much connected to the larger macro-structures we live within (Mills 1959); the concrete mundane problems that we can easily grasp are very much related to those larger global issues and policies which we see as distant. From this pedagogical approach, students would start by focusing on an engaging, concrete activity and slowly broaden this focus during the semester, learning how this activity is impacted by a larger complex web of national and global structures.

After doing some initial reading and reflection in the summer of 2007 on the complex issue of “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) amongst honeybees (Apis Mellifera), I thought that a Global Issues course that centers on honeybees as the proverbial “canaries in a coal mine” would help students understand and engage in the global issues that impact their own lives as well. The ecological crisis that beekeepers and their bees face is not simply technical/biological issues, but a problem influenced by global socioenvironmental forces as well.
Why focus on honeybees?
  1. Media Attention- The crisis facing bees already is of interest to many students through the attention much of the media have given to CCD. Students have seen stories on 60 Minutes, or read articles on the web or in newspapers.
  2. Bees are Engaging Creatures- Once people get beyond their initial fear of bees they often become fascinated by these creatures. Some even catch what beekeepers call “bee fever”. Tracey (2008:798) describes it this way: “People of every age are simply amazed at the advanced social insect, Apis Mellifera. It is the only insect that produces food and other products used by humans. It is the only insect with flower consistency. It is an insect with a solar navigation system, an ability to create enough heat and cooling effects to keep its brood at 94 F, and a communication system that allows hive members to work for the survival of a colony as a whole.”
  3. Transparent Connections – At least to this observer, the connections between the honeybee survival and larger socioenvironmental factors seem quite transparent and communicable to undergraduates.
The Teaching Model
While the hands-on “problem-based” pedagogy (Delisle 1997) I plan to use in this course would be interesting to discuss, in this paper, I will outline the proposed model to be used for structuring course content (see Figure 1). The topics in the course are pictured as a series of 4 concentric circles: the inner circle is bee biology, the circle around that concerns the local management of bees (apiculture), the next ring represents the larger societal environment beekeeping takes place in, and last circle represents the global level. The course ends with discussion of possible future scenarios in the above context.

The arrows in the model represent the learning/teaching trajectory of the course. The course’s general path will be to move from the biological, to the local, to the societal, and lastly, to the global, with constant connections being made to the lower levels. (This is indicated by those returning arrows that veer off the straight line.) Each “topic ring” is elaborated on below.

Bee Biology

Students begin the class with a “crash” course in bee biology. Topics include: the anatomy, function and life-cycle of the three honeybee “castes” (i.e. queen, drone, worker), the modes by which bees communicate with hive-mates (e.g. pheromones, “bee dance”), their genetics and mating behavior, other behaviors (e.g. foraging, stinging), the products produced by bees (i.e. propolis, honey, beeswax, royal jelly, “bee bread”), and, finally, the bees’ nutritional requirements (c.f. Blackston, 2002:17-40)

Two other topics will be introduced at this point in the course as well: (1) the honeybees ecological relationship with the “natural” environment and (2) the bee colony as a “super organism”. (Sanford, 2008; Tautz 2008)

Apiculture in Social and Cultural Context

Besides acquiring “hands-on” knowledge of both conventional and alternative apiculture, the students will be introduced to a critical examination of bee management from a social and cultural perspective. Western attitudes toward “nature” and the process of rationalization have both shaped the technology/techniques used to keep bees in the U.S. as well as many other parts of world. These two factors affect the health and well-being of Apis Melifera to a significant degree.

Western Attitude Toward Nature— Historian, Lynn White (1967) argues that through the influence of a particular Christian ethos, the Western World has developed an exploitive and domineering view of humanity’s relationship to nature. Rather than seeing ourselves as part of nature, we, in the West, see ourselves above nature in the role of a ruler who uses nature for his/her own benefit and as the ruler sees fit. Nature was created for us, we must subdue nature and use it for our own purposes.

The ill-effects of this attitude on honeybees is a source of debates debates between the conventional beekeeping establishment and those proposing more sustainable methods. (e.g. Chandler, 2007) Conventional beekeeping’s first priority, at least since the 1800’s, has always been a concern with the products bees produce for humans, and the beekeeper’s own convenience, and, only secondarily, with the health and sustainability of bees. So, for example, conventional beekeepers may attempt to extract as much honey as possible from a hive in the late summer and fall, leaving very little honey for the over wintering bees. The beekeeper makes up for the deficit by stuffing the bees with a cheaper cane sugar syrup or high fructose corn syrup throughout the fall. (Wells, Potter, and Abramson, 2008) Debate continues in the beekeeping community on whether this is a healthy, sustainable apicultural practice and whether or not such a practice might be linked, at least partially, to bee die-off. (c.f. Oliver n.d. a)
Sustainable beekeeper, Phil Chandler (2007), proposes another practice which commercial honey producers might label as “impractical”. He argues that the beekeeper should harvest honey in the spring, taking only what the honey honeybees have not used for over wintering. Thus, the bees would have a more nutritious diet in the winter, making them more able to resist the various pests and diseases that are endemic in the hive.

The Rationalization of Apiculture— Along with this domineering attitude toward nature the process of rationalization (c.f. Weber 1921 [1968]) also impacts the practice of apiculture in sometimes negative ways. The Western world has become increasingly dominated by a concern for efficiency, predictability, productivity, and labor saving control by technology (Ritzer 2008: 25). The rationalization of beekeeping management techniques seem connected to many honeybee “health problems”.

Horn (2005: 121-4) locates the origins of the rationalization of apiculture in the mid 1800s with the invention of three new apicultural technologies: movable frames, machines to produce beeswax foundation, and the “smoker”. These technologies allowed the beekeeper to efficiently and productively (in human terms) manage many more hives then s/he could in the past. Suddenly, almost over night, “industrial” labor-saving beekeeping was possible. Coupled with the rising price of sugar cane during the Civil War, large scale beekeeping was born. Today, these technological innovations have allowed commercial beekeepers to manage thousands of hives, and transport them all around the country and the world.

Even conventional beekeepers recognize that this rationalization of apicultural has not been without costs, especially to the health, well-being, and sustainability of the honeybees themselves. (e.g. Hayes 2008: 786) Many of the current techniques that make commercial beekeeping possible may have negative, long-term consequences for the bees. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this.

Recently, Randy Oliver, commercial beekeeper and “amateur” scientist, tested the efficacy of using two sustainable “folk” methods for controlling the varroa mite, a deadly honeybee pest that came very close to wiping out managed and feral honeybees in the early 90s. He discovered that by periodically pulling out and destroying frames of capped drone brood, and dusting bees with powdered sugar, the level of mite infestation can be lowered to a threshold that the bees own hygienic behavior and immune system can deal with. This management approach does not seem to produce any resistant mites as well. Overall, this management approach is quite sustainable for the bees. (Oliver n.d. B)

While such an approach might be regarded as an excellent option for sideline and backyard beekeepers and their handful of hives, commercial beekeepers see this technique as just too labor intensive and inefficient for their large scale operations. These sustainable techniques demand the opening and management of each individual hive on at least a monthly basis. From a short-term economic standpoint, it is much more cost effective to simply use one of the various miticides available to commercial establishments, and wipe out the mites in that way. Of course, in the long-term, even commercial beekeepers recognize, that this approach is not sustainable, and breeds “super mites” who are resistant to the miticide. (c.f. Hayes 2008: 786)

The second illustration also concerns the varroa mite problem as well. The only way unmanaged hives, as a “superorganism”, can reproduce is by means of “swarming”. To put it simply, if, in late spring/early summer, a hive becomes honey-bound, and reaches a critical density, the bees may begin preparations to swarm. The hive begins to produce dozens of queen cells, and both the old queen and close to half the workers prepare to leave in search of a new suitable home in which to start a new colony. Hopefully, one of the virgin queens in the old hive successfully mates and begins work re-establishing a thriving hive within the old colony. From the economic viewpoint of the beekeeper, swarming is something that should be prevented. (Horn 2005:139) A hive that swarms is set back at least a month in honey production. In some beekeepers’ eyes, not preventing swarming can be interpreted as poor, lazy, and neglectful management of a hive. So, beekeepers have developed various techniques and technology for preventing hives from swarming.

While economically unproductive, it does appear as if swarming has some real positive benefits for the future sustainability of the honeybee, however. For one thing, a hive that swarms breaks up the lifecycle of the varroa mite, keeping the level of infestation down.

The eggs of varroa mites are laid in brood cells, and their larvae feast on bee larvae. Until a swarm finds and/or builds new comb, the old queen cannot lay eggs, and without eggs there are no larvae on which the mites can live off. In the old hive, it will take around a month before a new queen is laying eggs, so again, the lifecycle of the mite is disrupted. The reason, then, that African hybrid bees seem resistant to mites has much to do with their tendency to swarm incessantly.

Societal Level--Beekeeping as a Business in the 21st Century U.S. Economy

At the societal level, students move next to an examination of beekeeping as a business and its position within the U.S. economy. As in the last conceptual zone, students will be asked to use the sociological imagination and reflect back on how the processes located in this zone impact the survival of the honeybee.

Beekeeping is a dominated subfield within the larger social field of American agriculture. (c.f. Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:94-114) American agricultural is a field primarily dominated by multinational corporations (farming and agrichemical firms) that possess a lion’s share of economic and political capital. These corporations, more often than not, define the rules of the agricultural game through their economic advantages and political clout. All that enter the field usually find themselves on the agricultural “production treadmill” (c.f. Scnaiberg 1980; Gould, Pellow and Schnaiberg 2008), the “speed” of which is greatly determined by the agribusiness giants. (c.f. Flottum 2008)

The dominated subfield of beekeeping is itself divided into three subgroupings, differing in the amount and species of capital: commercial beekeepers (full-timers), sideline beekeepers, and hobby (backyard) beekeepers. Commercial beekeepers dominate this field to the degree that the equipment and apicultural methods that are conventionally defined as standard to beekeeping, are largely designed for the needs and approaches of commercial beekeepers. The manufacturers of equipment survive because of the sales they make to commercial outfits. If commercial beekeeping were to disappear so would most the manufacturers. But as dominant as commercial beekeepers are in this subfield, their capital and influence is tiny compared to some of the agribusiness and agrichemical firms in the field of agricultural. The largest of commercial pollinators or honey producers are still likely to be small-scale family-run operations with workers wearing many hats. (Mares 2005:55-77)

The Agrichemical Agricultural Complex (Flottum 2008:8) which fulltime, commercial beekeepers find themselves in impacts the health and sustainability of honeybees, primarily through the monoculture used in present day farming. Monoculture affects honeybee health in two important ways. First, monoculture is dependent on the use, not only of herbicides (to kill competing) plants but pesticides as well. Insect pests thrive in monocultural environments where diversity in plant life is lacking (c.f. McWilliams 2008:59; Olkowski, Daar, Olkowski 1995: 142) demanding extensive use of pesticides. Pesticides have been linked to bee die-off and colony collapse in a number countries (Schacker, 2008). The second monoculture effect is related to bee nutrition in monocultural areas. Honeybees require a variety of pollen sources in order to maintain a proper, balanced nutrition. In monocultured areas, where bees primarily forage on one type of plant, honeybees receive an improper diet which has been linked to susceptibility to a number of viruses possibly resulting in CCD. (Jacobsen 2008:47, 147).

Global Context

With the previous concept levels explored, the student is finally ready to examine the impact of globalization on the survival of the honeybee. Historically, the health of honeybees, as an economically valuable creature, has always been tied to the global system. Honeybees are not native to the United States, being brought to this country by the first white settlers. In the 1870s, a strain of honeybees was imported from Italy because of their greater productivity and “gentleness”. (Horn 2005)

“Natural” beekeepers, Ross Conrad (2007: 184) argues that the process of globalization is a two-edge sword in relation to the well-being and sustainability of the honeybee. On the one hand, the importation and export of honeybee strains around the world expands the biodiversity of the honeybee population, leading, at least theoretically, to a more adaptable species of insect. Some researchers have linked the CCD epidemic to the narrow gene pool existing amongst honeybees within the U.S.; American bees do not have the genetic variability to adapt to environmental changes. (Jacobsen 2008: 44-5) So, over the last decade, Russian honeybees have been imported and bred in the United States because of their immunity to the varroa mite and better survival rate in northern climates.

But the importing and exporting of honeybees around the globe has its negative side. A number of the pests and diseases (e.g. Varroa mites, Nosema ceranae) honeybees are battling in the U.S. have been introduced and spread through both the domestic, and global movement of colonies. The introduction of the African hybrid into the Western Hemisphere was simply the result of an economic development project gone awry. Every gain in the import/export of honeybees is outweighed by negative unforeseen consequences.

The issue of global climate change can also be illuminated through an examination of honeybee sustainability. Drought conditions and rising temperatures have made geographical areas where honeybees once foraged, less and less suitable for sustainable apiculture. (Bartlet 2008)

Global commodity markets will be discussed, highlighting their effect on honeybees. The price of honey has declined on world markets with cheap exports from China and Argentina flooding the world market. As a result, commercial beekeeping outfits in the U.S. now focus on migratory pollination services in order to survive (Mares, 2005) which many argue has a negative impact on the health and sustainability of the honeybee population. (Schacker, 2008; Jacobsen, 2008) Migratory beekeeping not only produces stress on honeybees, it also allows the rapid spread of bee pathogens around the globe.

The globalization of neo-liberal economic practices through the conditionalities set by the IMF, and World Bank (Stiglitz 2006:25-59; Cavanaugh and Mander 2004:32-54) and its effects on the health of the honeybee has yet to be studied. We have already seen that the process of rationalization both in apiculture and agriculture do seem to effect bee sustainability. What effects has the spread of these practices globally had on the honeybee in other parts of the world?

The Future and Solutions

In the last section of the course, students will examine the future of the honeybee and that future’s impact on human survival. We begin this section examining the works of both Jacobsen (2008) and Schacker (2008). Both authors predict dire agricultural consequences if the honeybee population continues to decline. The collapse of bees means a collapse to our food supply.

We move after this to the solutions currently being debated, dividing them into two categories: (1) technological/reductionist solutions and (2) structural/holistic ones. Technological/reductionist solutions are those of so-called “green capitalism”. They seek the solutions to environmental problems in technological innovations and “silver bullets” that keep the social structure virtually intact. So for example, many conventional beekeepers await the invention of miticides that are environmentally safer and do not lead to the breeding of genetically resistant mites. Structural/holistic solutions look for answers in structural and global changes in the rather complex, multivariate global socioenvironment. Some might argue that the creation of sustainable human societies (e.g. Cavanaugh and Mander 2005: 77-104) will ensure the sustainability of bees. For example, Chandler (2007) argues that the future survival of bees depends on beekeepers’ rethinking apiculture holistically. For Chandler, the survival of managed bee colonies depends on returning to beekeeping as a cottage industry, and away from factory apiculture.
In order to engage students in the abstract, and complex study of global issues, I have begun to design a problem-based, interdisciplinary global issues course that examines the current environmental threats facing honeybees. The course includes a biological examination of apis mellifera, a study of the human management of the creature, the impact of global and socio-environmental factors on their well-being and, finally, a discussion of their future survival.
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Blackston, Howland. 2002. Beekeeping For Dummies. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Loic J.D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Cavanaugh, John and Jerry Mander. Alternatives to Economic Globalization. San Francisco: Berrett Koehler.

Chandler, Phil. 2007. The Barefoot Beekeeper, 1st Edition.

Conrad, Ross. 2007. Natural Beekeeping-Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

Delisle, Robert. 1997. How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Flottum, Kim. 2008. “The Inner Cover: the Complex: Selling Honey.” Bee Culture September: 10, 58.

Gould, Kenneth A., David N. Pellow and Allan Schnaiberg. 2008. The Treadmill of Production: Injustice and Unsustainability in the Global Economy. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Hayes, Jerry. 2008. “The Classroom.” Bee Culture September:783-7.

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Jacobsen, Rowan. 2008. Fruitless Fall- The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis. New York: Bloomsbury.

Mares, Bill. 2005. Bees Besieged - One Beekeeper’s Bittersweet Journey to Understanding. Medina, OH: A.I. Root.

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Oliver, Randy. n.d. A. “Bee Nutrition: Fat Bees 1.” . Accessed September 12, 2008.

-------. n.d. B. “Tactics: Biotechnical Methods I.” . . Accessed September 12, 2008.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Warre in the Future?

Monta was reading the comments to my last post and decided to check out the website of one of those who commented:  "". She was extremely impressed with his fine website, and became expecially interested in his Warre hive. When I visited her this morning at work, she showed me his site and asked whether we might have a Warre next year. She loves the bees and also loves any new building project that comes along as well. So, it looks like a Warre hive is in our future now.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fall Frantic

Even after reading a handful of beekeeping manuals, I still never expected the change in behavior that would come over my bees in the fall. They are frantically scurrying about searching for another drop of nectar, or worse, bits of discarded sweets to store up for the winter and will take on anyone or anything to get it. I have viewed the rare battle at the entrance between bees of different hives, and the bees' successful attempts at repelling wasps, hornets and bumblebees who come too close to the entrance. Unfortunately, I've also found them around the corner at the local Kwik Trip, scrounging the garbage cans for candy and pop. And I've been stung while moving our cat, Finn, away from Metpropolis, as if I was a common thief and not their collaborator. Winter is at hand.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Yellow Jacket - Honey Bee Symbiosis

Since I haven't been opening up either hive for inspections recently, I've spent a great deal of time observing the entrances of each. I've noticed an interesting relationship between the yellow jackets who've been hovering around the entrance to Bee Glad..., and the honey bees who are starting to prepare for fall and winter. The yellow jackets do not try to enter the hive but instead wait hungrily in front for the next drone to be evicted from the hive. The workers, seemingly ignoring the yellow jackets, push the drones off the entrance board, where thedrones are enthusiastically attacked by the hovering yellow jackets. The honey bees get rid of some drones, and the yellow jackets get a meal.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Catching Up With the Blog

I started the semester last week and that fact has taken my attention away from keeping up with my blog.  The following are a few notes I have been meaning to write about:

I did some mite testing a week and a half ago and the count just skyrocketed over previous weeks. I recognized that this was not a good situation to go into fall and winter with so I did treat, very reluctantly, with Apiguard, a Thymol-based miticide. I hate being put on the pesticide treadmill and the bees did not like it as well. There is not really much written about the bees initial reaction to thymol use, but, between the 90 degree temperature and the Apiguard, both hives got an extreme case of bearding that scared me a bit. 

The temperatures plummetted this week, so the bees are much less active right now. I am observing them closely.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Change in Session at SOM

I have been moved to another panel at the Sociologists of Minnesota meeting in October. I will be discussing my proposal for a  hands-on "bee focused" Global Issues course. I will have more information on this soon.