Could the huge loss of bees in recent years be because we treat them, like so may other farm animals, as cogs in a big industrial ag machine? This is just one of the questions posed by apiculturalist (he rejects the term “beekeeper” – more on that below) Michael Thiele at a workshop Kelly and I attended which was sponsored by Honey Love.
The language of bees
Thiele began his lecture with a critique of the language we use for bees–first off the term “beekeeper.” “Keeping” bees suggests the constant interference bees get in our industrial system: being dosed with insecticides to treat mites, moving them thousands of miles a year, feeding them high fructose corn syrup, artificially breeding queens, etc. Thiele proposed the term “apiculture” as a word that suggests living with bees rather than keeping them. Feral honeybees as well as the bees of natural apiculturalists, after all, keep themselves and seem to be doing better without all the intervention.
The same goes for the word “worker.” Thiele suggested that when we use this kind of 19th century industrial language we’re thinking more of our own desires than the true nature and health of the bees.
Thiele wants us to think of a hive holistically, as a superorganism he calls (as did Rudolf Steiner) the bien. As Thiele puts it, the bien is “one being . . . permeated with life based on love.” In Thiele’s inclusive view the bien is much more than just a few thousand individual bees. The bien also includes all the symbiotic and parasitic relationships bees have with microorganisms, flowers, honey, gravity–even wax moth larvae and mites. When we take a whole systems approach, Thiele suggests, we’re more likely to admit our ignorance and approach the hive with humility. Thiele’s description of the bien reminded me of Martin Buber’s I-Thou as opposed to I-It relationship, i.e. subject to subject rather than subject to object. In fact, several hundreds of years of materialism in the west has, sadly, degenerated most of our relationships into I-it relationships (think separateness and detachment).
Due to the sheer complexity of the a hive, Thiele suggests our relationship with the bien should rely, for the most part, on intuition. When we deal with other humans–or a dog or a horse–we have a face to look at. With bees there is no face. Bees also have an otherness about them that makes a connection with them a very different experience than dealing with our fellow mammals. Unfortunately, the intuitive senses we need to relate to a bien that lacks a recognizable face have atrophied in our culture, another victim of I-it.
At the end of the workshop, when we visited some hives in a backyard in Santa Monica, we had a chance to see Thiele demonstrate his intuitive approach to bees. He approached the bees, without a veil, with a quiet reverence. Kneeling, he placed a hand on top of one of the boxes. A guard bee came out to fly around his face. Thiele told us what to do when this happens: relax and try to connect with the bien. After buzzing around for a minute or so, the guard bee left.
I’ve had three encounters with guard bees since I’ve seen Thiele demonstrate this. Two times I followed Thiele’s advice and the guard bee flew off. Once I did the opposite, freaked out and promptly got stung. It’s yet another of the odd metaphysical experiences I’ve had with bees. To the skeptics I’d suggest that this non-verbal communication is no different than what you’d do with a frightened horse: relax, try to establish a contact with the horse brain and you’ll be fine. Freak out, and things could go badly for both you and the horse.
A machine for living
Along with the industrial language that we use to describe bees, Thiele suggests that it’s well past time to rethink the industrial hardware we use to “keep” bees. The 19th century Langstroth hive still dominates, and this form of hive could be likened to a 19th century factory design: a honey factory. Thiele thinks that Langstroth hives are for our convenience rather than the health of the bees. Thiele says we need to look at how bees live in nature to find clues for the types of housing we should provide. Thiele has been experimenting for years with various designs, some as simple as just a hollowed out log, others more elaborate such as the sun hive, a beautiful woven object:
The sun hive has movable frames, a feature that is mandated by law in the US. Provocatively, Thiele noted the difference between a legal obligation and a moral obligation. In our hive designs we may have to transcend the law. And we’re also going to need to get creative. Thiele’s sun hive, by his own admission, is by no means the last word on the subject. Thiele hopes that we can begin the process of experimentation, always asking the bien what it wants rather than being focused on our own interests. I’ll take a look at some alternate hive designs in-depth in future blog posts.
The alchemy of bee-ing
As the late apiculturalist Charles Martin Simon said, “it’s not about the honey. It’s not about the money.” Focus on those two things and we’ll destroy ourselves along with the bees. Apiculture, according to Thiele is “an art of the soul.” Bees, he says, are messengers for different levels of consciousness. They link the realms of heaven and earth in their daily journeys. They may also be the key to integrating our disjointed souls.
To see more of Thiele’s work including some videos visit Gaia Bees.