Mark L. Winston is Academic Director of the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University, and Professor in the Department of Biological Science. His latest book, Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, was one of CBC's Best Books of 2015 and won last year's Governor General's Literary Award for Non-fiction. Mark will be visiting Guelph for the Canadian Science Writer's 45th Annual Conference and is appearing for a reading and signing in the Bookshelf cinema at 7pm on Friday, June 3rd.
I entered the Hive known as the Internet to extract some answers about Colony Collapse Disorder, Big Agriculture, writing, pedagogy, consilience, honey, and dialogue.
Brad de Roo avoided as many bee puns as he humanly could in search of a more sustainable buzz (sorry.)
What brought you to bees?
At the start it was adventure, the opportunity to go to South America and study killer bees. But once immersed in bees, I felt like I had come home. The combination of their basic sociality and their economic importance was particularly compelling.
What are the most prevalent misconceptions about bees?
Probably the biggest misconception is that honeybees work hard. They’re actually somewhat lazy, resting most of the time, and only working when the colony requires it. That way, they conserve energy for the important moments. A great lesson for we humans!
When did it become apparent to you that bees were under threat?
It’s become increasingly difficult to keep honeybees healthy over my 40 years of studying and keeping bees. First there were new diseases and pests, then increasing pesticide use and finally a decline in habitats suitable for bees to forage in, with diverse and abundant nectar and pollen sources. But a tipping point into serious crisis was reached about ten years ago, when suddenly honeybee colonies began dying in large numbers.
What most disturbs you about these findings?
The decline of managed honeybees as well as wild bees indicates just how deeply we have degraded the environment around us, and does not bode well for our human future unless we can reach a healthier balance with nature.
In your book you note that Colony Collapse Disorder is a complex, nuanced, and multi-causal problem. How do you think individuals, communities, and governments can best co-contribute to increasing the diversity and health of wild and domesticated bees?
Governments have the most critical role, through their regulatory powers. Reducing pesticide use, increasing subsidies for sustainable farming and reducing them for industrial farming, encouraging habitat restoration with flowers good for bees – all of these mechanisms would improve the lot of pollinators. Communities are already acting, with an explosion of pollinator enhancements in cities that have become a global movement, especially through encouraging urban farming, planting pollinator-friendly flowers and banning outdoor pesticide use in cities. Individuals also can help by doing simple things: don’t mow your lawn when the dandelions and clover are blooming, plant gardens and leave brushy areas and dirt patches intact for wild bees to nest in.
Guelph is known for its agricultural college. You are highly critical of many of Big Agriculture’s practices. What agricultural improvements would you like to see on every curriculum?
I’m not sure curriculum is the problem. Pretty much every agricultural college teaches integrated pest management, which should reduce pesticide use, and promotes the idea of polycultural farms with mixed croppings, which also would benefit bees. But sadly there is a gap between the steps we know would encourage pollinators, as well as reduce the environmental impacts of farming, and the reality of farming across North America. Perhaps we need to focus curriculum as much on strategies to implement positive change as we do on how to farm.
Bee Time, besides being your book’s title, is also a contemplative and calming state of attention you’ve experienced in the apiary. What exactly constitutes ‘Bee Time’ as a state of bee-ing (please forgive this stingless pun)?
Bee Time is a state of mind: fully present, focused, slowed down, aware, listening. It is indeed contemplative and calming, but a state of mind achievable and beneficial outside of apiaries as well as when we are with our bees. I think of bee time a lot in my current work at the Centre for Dialogue, at coffee shops when I’m engaged in deep conversation, at the computer when the writing muse has struck. Pretty much every aspect of my life now runs on bee time.
You caution against anthropomorphizing throughout Bee Time. Was it difficult to avoid anthropomorphic metaphors and descriptions throughout your book?
I was conscious of not confusing bees and humans. We can learn much from bees, but they are not us, and we shouldn’t expect them to respond to the world around them the way that we humans do. Thank goodness!
You list many lessons we can learn from the hive. Did any of these lessons help you write, either motivationally or technically?
I have three favorite words in Bee Time: “solitary becomes communal.” While writing is solitary, I tried to never forget that my individual actions as a writer are meant to be read by an audience, and that the goal of Bee Time was not to write a book but to stimulate communal thought in the society around us. That’s very much a lesson from bees that both motivated me and provided a template upon which my writing proceeded.
Your book outlines a careful version of consilience, citing biological, philosophical, mythical, social, historical, political, and artistic interpretations of bees. How important is consilience to your pedagogical approach?
I collaborated with a chemist when I ran a bee research laboratory, and that collaboration was often held up as a fine example of interdisciplinary interaction. I’ve learned since that, as much as I enjoyed that collaboration, a biologist and a chemist working together didn’t push the boundaries of disciplines very far. In my later career I’ve had the opportunity to work with artists, politicians, non-profit organizations, corporations and many others, which has reinforced my suspicion that the more diversity we bring to issues, the healthier the outcomes. Consilience is personally rewarding and interesting, but also leads to tangible and effective results. How important is it to teaching and learning? Core. Absolutely core.
Is there a species of bee you most relate to? Or if that’s too anthropomorphic a question, what type of bee you are most fascinated by?
I’d have to say honeybees, but my appreciation for the solitary wild bees has increased over the years as I’ve come to recognize their potential as pollinators. The ecological services they could provide are immense.
Where can I get the best honey?
Since I’m no longer producing the copious quantities of Heavenly Honey we used to harvest from our SFU bees, I can’t recommend any particular brand. But, I do always encourage consumers to buy local, and get to know your beekeeper. Every taste of honey is enriched by knowing where it came from and who harvested it.
Bee Time’s epilogue explains that you have left behind the apiary for a career in dialogue studies. What dialogue should we be having about bees? Is this dialogue part of a greater discussion?
Bee Time is very much that dialogue. Bees are a window into personal issues, societal and civic discussions, and how we relate to and manage the environment around us. It’s a very big discussion, rooted in the largest issues, and my hope for the book has always been that it would stimulate that conversation.