Honeybee of Two Minds

2,880 total words    

12 minutes of reading

Review of Heather Swan, “Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories From The Field” (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017)

As a relatively novice beekeeper myself—five years under the veil and I’m still approaching the practice with sober humility—I have often stood before an open hive of honeybees in a kind of dumbstruck trance that could be attributed to my lateralized brain. Once my very real fear of the possibility of a sting has been reckoned with, I have found myself gobsmacked at the many paradoxes that a healthy colony presents: total efficiency within the perceived disorder, persistent intentionality within wildly erratic movement, and a single-minded compulsion for survival within a code of behavior that we humans often like to anthropomorphize as selfless compassion. That last attribute, promoted by entomologists Marla Spivak in her famous TED talk, starts to lose its relevance to anyone who has ever witnessed a colony of bees preparing for oncoming winter. Their seemingly egalitarian principles are turned inside out when the worker bees (females) begin forcing the drones (males) out the front door of the hive in order to control population through the lean season. Kicking drones to the curb to fend for themselves is certainly an action with much greater benefit than the sum of its individual actions, but at the same time it might not be the model for human society that we so eagerly seek.

Such tricky ping-ponging between the poles of ethical and terrible, beautiful and grotesque, is at the heart of Heather Swan’s explorative book, Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories From The Field. Swan’s deceptively slim book spans regions on all sides of the globe, as well as her own backyard in and around the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she teaches environmental literature and writing. In the book’s introduction, she describes the same kind of awe that I have experienced upon opening a healthy hive:

A familiar frisson fills me. The frames are crawling with tiny creatures whose tongues are encyclopedias of plants, whose bodies are an unfolding cartography, whose wings bear the weight of a global food system—and whose disappearance is a message to the world.

By taking in the totality of honeybees in a single observation, Swan sets the tone for the book that encompasses everything that the insect touches: a nearly incalculable interdependence with the flowering plants that comprise our livable biosphere and nourish us; an astounding ability to orient themselves in space as though guided by satellites; and the deep sense of loss that we humans experience as we tiptoe into the Anthropocene, peeking through our fingers at the untimely demise of mass numbers of species, insect and otherwise. (The author notes that Albert Einstein allegedly said that without bees, the human race would not last longer than four years). Numerous volumes have been written on the topic, and yet what sets Where Honeybees Thrive apart from them is the inclusion of work by a handful of visual artists whose shared muse is the honeybee, and who use their crafts to explore the visceral, allegorical allure of the creature. Swan’s own upbringing was nurtured by art, and for a brief few years as a little girl:

Before my parents divorced, my days were spent floating with my dog between my mother’s clay studio, my father’s painting studio, and the acres of wildflowers and pine trees that surrounded the simple house my parents had built. The landscape outside the door sang with magic and adventure and early glimpses of the sacred.

Swan’s curiosity about her own beekeeping practice leads to a type of research that playfully bounds from the scientific left brain to the expansive right brain like a game of literary hopscotch. It’s as if the book is divided into equal hemispheres, and Swan’s deft prose is the large bundle of nerve fibers—the corpus callosum if you will—that enables communication between the two.

Where Honeybees Thrive is Swan’s journal of discovery that she describes as “part love song, part lament, and part quest.” As she wanders cross-continentally to satisfy her own curiosity, she in turn challenges the reader’s notions of what constitutes “normal” in nature, as well as in the material world. She travels to the Guangxi and Sichuan provinces of China after reading of the Hani people, “who live high in the Himalayas, [and who have the] skill and patience to tie a little thread with a feather on one end to the leg of a bee so that they can follow her to her hive, where they gather honey.” She had heard the now-legendary stories of orchards in China that employ people to do the difficult work of hand-pollinating the flowers of pear trees. She reports that in fact workers “learned to read the flowers and know exactly when they were ready to ‘mate.’ Apparently, women are considered superior to men in this sensual, delicate practice, though many men do it, and children are not allowed to participate at all.” She then references a few lines from a poem about a woman whom Buddha turns into a tree:

Blossoming, discretely, under the sun
Every flower is my previous life’s yearning.
When you trek near, listen carefully:
The trembling leaves are my longing . . .”

Such tangents into poetry, ancient folklore, and classical myths are liberally peppered throughout her writing, continually tethering her experience to a deeper historical narrative. And yet in just a few strokes, Swan sets us back on course in the here and now with the surprising revelation that human pollinators are not the result of a lack of bees in the region—as is often the assumption—but rather a solution to the problem of Chinese beekeepers simply refusing to send their bees to orchards that are heavily treated with chemical pesticides and herbicides. “Even when fruit growers offered to pay the beekeepers,” she writes, “the beekeepers would not endanger their bees. Thus the fruit on those hillsides was 100 percent human-pollinated, a practice that was getting too expensive to continue.” Swan uses opportunities like these to allow tiny rays of hope into the narrative:

What would happen if beekeepers in the United States and other places simply insisted that farmers change their practices? . . . If beekeepers united, could they demand more changes like these that could save the honeybees?

Swan’s reaching for concrete solutions to complex problems is commendable, but often falls short of a firm foothold. Instead, the hypothetical interjections serve as a way to lighten the mood when things start to get gloomy (the chapter on American lawns alone had me craving a mind-erasing cocktail) and could be thesis statements for another book altogether. More fitting to the tone of the book are her reports that bees have been trained, amazingly, to detect diseases like tuberculosis, diabetes, and cancer, as well as smuggled drugs and bombs; or that bees have the ability to enable plants to produce far more seeds due to their pollination. By presenting an array of examples that highlight the enigmatical wonders of the insect, Swan regains focus on the strength of Where Honeybees Thrive.

Swan broadens the scope to the geologic by touching on the intricate dance between human imposition upon nature through heavy-handed science and nature’s backlash as exemplified by climate change. She travels to South Africa to learn about honeybees that primarily feed on the nectar of eucalyptus trees—the same species of tree that happens to be invasive to South Africa and therefore requires an amount of water that exceeds any of the native plant species. Thirsty trees speed up drought conditions, which throws off the ecological balance and in turn negatively affects not only the bees themselves but also the health of the many crops bees pollinate in the area, including lychees, avocados, nuts, squash, pumpkins, celery, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, berries, apples, pears, plums, and kiwi fruit. All of these crops need bees, but they also desperately need water—the same water that is being greedily consumed by the eucalyptus trees that primarily sustain the honeybee. Swan laments that “despite the many advances of technology, the search for a sustainable balance that allows human-nonhuman coexistence often feels like an elusive quest.” Evoking the work of professor of anthropology Anna Tsing, Swan pushes the reader into a less human-centric and binary view of the world, and away from the “universalizing” solution of globalization that “pretends that the pieces that make up those universals are the same everywhere.” Swan asserts that there is no same-ness, no evenness. Instead, there are countless shards. In this mosaic, I try to imagine all of the various and singular shards working together to create a new image, one I’m working to understand. Shards represented by beekeepers and biologists serve as individual pieces that do not lose their uniqueness in coming together. Instead, in the course of gathering those pieces together, the relationships between them are brought out—those that jar the eye or the mind and those that seem harmonious.

When Swan strikes this notion of harmony, her desire for positive action starts to resonate like wisdom, as reflected in her experience with an elder Chinese beekeeper in a sharp blue Mao suit.

I marveled at the seething mass of lovely insects he proudly held up to me, one frame at a time. I found myself sighing loudly, and nodding to everything he pointed out. He pointed out the queen, and we marveled over the many shades of pollen packed tightly into cells in one frame, the cells filled with honey in another frame, and the healthy brood in yet another. I felt, for perhaps the first time in my life, what I think musicians sometimes feel with other musicians, even of different cultures and languages—a kind of connection, a harmony, that occurs among people who deeply love the same thing and can therefore share and communicate inexplicably, and without any recognizable language at all, but rather with sounds and gestures.

The artists featured in Where Honeybees Thrive both jar the eye and create harmony—quite literally in the work of the South African artist Kim Gurney, whose work recreates an ancient bee-communication object called a “bullroarer” that is spun overhead from the end of a long string, which the artist says emits a “kind of throbbing, pulsating breath-like timbre to encourage a low-grade anxiety in the listener through a hyperventilating rhythm.” As an exercise in perspective, Swan then reflects on the first time she brought home a package of honeybees on the floor of her car:

It was in that small, quiet space that I first heard the humming. The sound was low and throaty, calm and gently undulating, a sound not unlike a very quiet version of Zen monks chanting. My fear dissolved. This song, this meditative sound the bees were making, communicated to me very quickly that these creatures had no interest in harming me. I drove for a long while listening to their humming. And finally, I began to sing, hoping they would understand by the tone of my voice that I also meant them no harm.

And yet human interference in the life of the honeybee is intrinsically complicit in their demise, which is devastatingly illustrated by the work of Canadian artist Sarah Hatton, who meticulously preserves the tiny carcasses of dead bees on white surfaces, arranging them in mathematical patterns known as Fibonacci sequences that seek to create a “dizzying effect on the viewer, a visceral sense of the impact of pesticides on honeybees.” Fellow Canadian artist Elizabeth Goluch fast-forwards to a future in which the extinct honeybee is replaced by “robobees” assembled out of highly valued metals and gems. As Swan astutely points out, such science-fiction isn’t far from our reach: a team of researchers at Harvard have developed a prototype that successfully “flew, hovered, and landed,” and is about twenty years from being able to pollinate crops. Perhaps no artist featured in the book depicts the human-bee interrelationship like Aganetha Dyck, who allows bees to build their waxy comb over and between miniature figurines dressed in Victorian-era garb. The result is a haunting vision of “rebellion and trespass” on the part of the embattled bee. “The pleasure that comes from this is a strange one”, Swan says, “not unlike the pleasure one finds in reading the chapter of Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us in which he imagines New York City slowly reverting to wilderness after the human influence is gone. There is a kind of relief in believing that nature will regain control and heal itself, an avenue out of guilt, perhaps.”

Strange pleasures. Precious robots. Whirling patterns both mesmerizing and dizzying. At every turn throughout her impressive book, Swan straddles the left brain/right brain meridian and tugs at the tension wires. Like a honeybee hovering over a flower aflame, she is compelled toward her subject and yet at the same time leery of the dangers that lurk. As a true researcher, she allows her quest for knowledge to pull her in many directions at once, and yet her writing stitches the frayed edges together in an unfolding tapestry with honeybees as its reverberating refrain. Swan is as likely to digress into impressionistic childhood memories as she is to reference William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Virginia Woolf. In one breath she can draw from the work of relative contemporaries like Rudolf Steiner, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, or Michael Pollan, and in the next conjure the words of Li Po, poet of the Tang dynasty. At one point she points out how Walt Whitman had his bee-sexing all wrong in his poem “Spontaneous Me,” while Emily Dickinson was spot-on with “To Make a Prairie.” In a particularly sharp turn, Swan relates the work of modern artist Rose-Lynn Fisher to the writing of eighteenth century philosopher Edmund Burke. The former creates vibrantly close-up images of bees produced with high-tech electron microscopes. The latter was concerned with the “distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, claiming that the sublime was associated with ‘the infinite . . . and terror.’” Making unlikely connections isn’t merely Swan’s gift in terms of writing, but also her most useful prescription for a world gone off track. When critiquing the work of another bee-centric artist, Sibylle Peretti, she describes the work as articulating the space of creativity:

that dreamlike space of curiosity, openness, vulnerability, surrender—the space of the child mind. This state of mind is one that I believe we need to remember, to cultivate especially now, as the planet faces so many obstacles. I believe that my movement between the outdoor world of bees and clover and the indoor world of makers and making allowed me to fuse these two worlds quite naturally and to learn to honor and trust the rich spaces of the uninterrupted imagination.

Swan’s own child mind scans all corners of the literary, scientific, and artistic world, similar to the way a honeybee scans for flowers on its flight from the hive. (In fact, Swan shares a vivid dream she once had of “flying fast through a forest of flowers, arcing in and out of vast cups of violet, through narrow crevices of vermillion, gliding past stamens and pistils, landing at last in the cathedral of an iris, the shrine littered with gold flecks of pollen.”) In apiary circles it is said that an average worker bee produces only about 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her lifetime, and she visits fifty to one hundred flowers during each collection trip. Where Honeybees Thrive is our 1/12th teaspoon of honey after the countless foraging flights by its author, and the result is just as valuable. One lingering message of her book is that compassion may indeed be the missing link to our survival. As she shares in the afterword, she checked on her bees after a harsh Midwestern winter, expecting to find nothing but death.

The day it warmed to eighteen above zero, I laid my head against the hive. No sound, as I suspected. But I knocked anyway, hard, several times, against the side of the box, and then I heard the roar, the gathering roar of the huddled survivors alarmed by my assault, the quiet roar of the fire. To be honest, when I heard them, I wept, moved by their incredible resilience. It was a very good reminder that together, and with love, we can survive just about anything.

In one of the early chapters, Swan shadows a grandfatherly beekeeper named Eugene Woller in her hometown of Madison. Woller proclaims that “beekeeping isn’t a job. Beekeeping isn’t an art. It’s a love.” One could say the same about the discipline of writing, and Swan certainly pours her heart into her craft. She shows us that the binaries that so often puzzle and separate us can be bridged if we step lightly into the field and allow all voices, human and otherwise, to be heard. The result is a low, humming harmony.

Where Honeybees Thrive isn’t a book for people only interested in the practice of beekeeping, nor for left-brain theorists or right-brain dreamers. It is for readers who find themselves adrift in the middle space, never entirely here nor there, searching for tranquility amid the hum.

Joe Phillips’ podcast interview with Heather Swan can be found here (episode #19). https://soundcloud.com/dharma-on-the-farm

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  • Joe Phillips

    Joe Phillips is the host of Farm On, a podcast of conversations with agriculturists, artists, and activists on the front lines of the food movement, and he writes essays on everything from agroecology to Zen at his website Dharma On the Farm. He is also a coordinator for Extinction Rebellion, an international movement for real solutions to the climate crisis. 

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