Can We Have a Moment, Please?

The Potential of Multiple Perspectives on Beekeeping and Pollinators

June 7, 2017

Daksha Madhu Rajagopalan and Emily Elsner (Adams)

A Mini Research Moment: Social Science and Pollinator Declines

Honey bees and pollinators have been a core environmental news item in the English-speaking media for the past five to eight years: dying of mysterious illnesses, affected by pesticides, and as generally responsible for the production of many fruits and vegetables on which we rely. Honey bees in particular have had a long, close relationship with people, something often forgotten in the flurry of crises and new discoveries. However, their increasingly frequent presentation alongside polar bears and glaciers as emissaries of environmental collapse and human destruction means it is important to consider both the biological/ecological and the social when discussing honey bee and pollinator declines (Harries-Jones 2009; Mathews 2011). However, bridging this divide can be challenging—and we’d like to know how to do it more effectively.

For researchers interested in pollinators, the last few years have been a real “research moment”: a by-chance encounter of funding, and political/social circumstance, which allows a particular area of research to emerge (Ward and Jones 1999: 301). In the case of pollinator research, the result has been a huge influx of funding to understand the complex reasons behind population declines across the full breadth of pollinator species, for example the UK’s Insect Pollinator Initiative as well as pollinator research funding from the NSF (see Vanbergen 2013 for more on the multiplicity of causes). However, hitherto research has been strongly biological and ecological, reflecting the dominance of these disciplines in beekeeping development. For example, of 543 pollinator-related grants funded by the NSF between 2007 and 2015, only 8 were by the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (see Figure 2 here).

Yet our sociocultural relationship with honey bees is foundational to understanding some of the challenges currently facing them, and indeed to understanding why we care so much about the loss of honey bees. To bring balance to the pollinator research moment, a group of 15 academics gathered near the Swiss Alps in May 2017 for a focused discussion on “Bee in Transition? On New Attentions for Bees and Beekeeping in Social Anthropology” convened by Mareile Flitsch, the director of the Ethnographic Museum of Zürich. We came from many different disciplines including anthropology, history, geography, engineering, biology, and film studies. Some of us were early-career researchers and some of us were not. We collectively discussed topics as far ranging as land rights, disease management, material culture, political ecology, and spirituality. What brought us together, and what was tenacious enough to lend structure to our diversity, was our shared interest in the cultural aspects of beekeeping: the anthropology of pollinators.

The Social Sciences, Humanities, and Bees: Applications to Broader Discussions

The social science research presented in May had some fascinating and useful inputs to make on existing discussions around pollinator declines, including the reflection that “bees” often becomes synonymized in both social science and public parlance with Apis mellifera, when in fact there are six other honey bee species globally and thousands of other insect pollinators. We also considered the effects of free trade and freedom of movement in the context of migratory beekeeping and biosecurity. One presenter explored the consequences of beekeepers moving bees between islands in the Mediterranean upon local communities, and the uproar that one such move had created in a small island community. Another presented UK-based work on the local environmental knowledge of beekeepers and sustainable landscapes—a pertinent contribution at a time of food insecurity and discussions around trade tariffs and the breaking of old partnerships. A third explored beekeeping enskillment, policy, and environmental stewardship in the United Kingdom, reflecting on the importance of including nonscientific voices in discussions around bee management. There also ensued discussion on treatment-free and “natural” beekeeping practices, as well as forays into decentering the human through film, theory, and novel methodological approaches, in line with recent multispecies ethnographic scholarship. Another participant had researched notions of wilderness in urban German beekeeping. Europe and Apis mellifera did not receive an exclusive focus either; the diversity of “BeeCultures” and the diversity of honey bee species were both glimpsed through perspectives from contemporary Cameroon as well as modern and premodern China. Complementing the range of social science, we also had a talk from a geneticist at the Bern-based Institute of Bee Health, which, while equally though differently theoretically dense, provided fascinating insights to new genetic solutions to managing bee diseases. Taking multidisciplinarity even further, there was also a collaborative project bridging wood sciences engineering with cultural knowledge and anthropology to study the historic use of chestnut wood in hive making in rural France to see if there is a modern health benefit for honey bees. Another French colleague also introduced the beekeeping scene in France as well as the newly formed Abeilles et Sociétés (Bees and Societies) research group, whose purpose is to further communication between French social scientists working on beekeeping.

Building a Colony-Community

Coming together with a shared focus on the cultural aspects of honey bees and other pollinators highlighted the importance of furthering communication between social and natural scientists as well as other stakeholder groups such as beekeepers. One issue shared by some (but not all!) of the participants was a sense of isolation, both from natural scientists engaging in their research topic, and also sometimes from their discipline, as cultural ecologists have arguably had a history of “almost totally ignor[ing] the impact of insects upon human societies” (Posey 1976: 147). Meeting together was a way for these widespread individuals working with bees to build a sense of community.

There is an existing and growing literature on beekeeping cultures, from researchers all around the world, including in America and Australia as well. There are also collaborative bee research projects such as Telling the Bees and Beelines. Our event in May has started to build a community, and we would like to see that community grow to include others, especially those already working on the topic.

In addition, community might need to be more than just like-minded (and like-disciplined) peers. The problems facing honey bees and other pollinators are sufficiently complex and knotted that attempting to apply singular (or even multiple) disciplinary lenses to “solve” them is difficult. As a colleague from France reminded us, multidisciplinary research is when scholars use approaches and ideas from different disciplines to creatively examine a problem, lending various lenses and perspectives. In contrast, interdisciplinary research is something quite different: the integration and recombination of disciplines into something new, often used when the problem itself is too big, complex, and intractable for the approach of a single or even multiple disciplines.

Understanding and managing pollinator decline is likely to require a truly interdisciplinary approach—but how can we achieve this with a small group of social scientists and anthropologists, at a time when the biological “research moment” into pollinators is already declining in intensity? Where do we even begin when facing that chasm between the arts and the sciences?

We would like to pose the readers of this blog some specific questions:

  • Is it necessary for a group of like-minded academics to do more than build a support and communication network? What would the benefits be, both practical and intellectual?
  • How can we bring together the diverse array of social and natural sciences that engage on the topic of beekeeping to work together, and to take better notice of each other’s work?
  • What can social scientists do to support existing natural science work, and vice versa?
  • How can academics, practitioners, and other stakeholders come together across disciplinary and societal boundaries to collaborate, strengthen and improve what each group does, and ensure that our pollinator and honey bee populations are able to thrive?

We hope that some of you are intrigued to engage with us: the authors are available for general discussion at the e-mail addresses below, and if you have similar research interests, our nascent bee research community would be delighted to discuss on our mailing list. Please contact the list manager, Peter Niedersteiner, if you wish to join and introduce yourself. We very much look forward to collaborating!

Daksha Madhu Rajagopalan
works as a research assistant for the James Hutton Institute, Scotland, and recently completed her MRes in social anthropology at the University of Aberdeen with a dissertation entitled “The UnWorld of Honeybees.” She can be contacted here.

Emily Elsner (Adams) runs a research consultancy based in Zürich, Elsner Research and Consulting, and completed an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Lancaster in 2015 on beekeeping knowledge and engagement with science and policy. She also has a background in ecology, conservation, and geography. She can be contacted here.


Harries-Jones, Peter. 2009. “Honeybees, Communicative Order, and the Collapse of Ecosystems.” Biosemiotics 2: 193–204.

Mathews, Freya. 2011. “Planet Beehive.” Australian Humanities Review 50: 159–178.

Posey, Darrell. 1976. “Entomological Considerations in Southeastern Aboriginal Demography.” Ethnohistory 23 (2): 147–160.

Vanbergen, Adam, and the Insect Pollinators Initiative. 2013. “Threats to an Ecosystem Service: Pressures on Pollinators.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 251–259.

Ward, Kevin, and Martin Jones. 1999. “Researching Local Elites: Reflexivity, ‘Situatedness’ and Political-temporal Contingency. Geoforum 30: 301–312.

Cite as: 
Rajagopalan, Daksha Madhu, and Emily Elsner (Adams). 2017. “Can We Have a Moment, Please? The Potential of Multiple Perspectives on Beekeeping and Pollinators.” EnviroSociety, 7 June.

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