Creating a Super-Organism: Complicating Honey Bee Research and Resilience Thinking

by Grace van Deelen

mentor: Alex Blanchette, Anthropology; funding source: Discovery Fund


The information in this poster is the result of what basically ended up being a (virtual) ethnography of entomologists, which was inspired by my past experiences working as a field assistant in the Gratton Lab at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, an entomology lab, working on a project that measured honey bee health as a result of landscape diversity. We, a collection of 5’4’’ or shorter women in baggy, brand-new bee suits, spent long days driving our huge Dodge pickup-truck all over southern Wisconsin, visiting colonies owned by commercial beekeepers.

There was a general agreement among my colleagues at the bee lab that what we were doing was both ecologically important, signaled by the very people I worked with. We were environmentalists, composters, who wore secondhand clothing and went to the farmer’s market. We were saving the bees. But every time I drove that huge diesel truck for hours and hours through winding country roads, manipulating beehives that did not belong to me and scooping hundreds of honey bees into jars and killing them with cyanide, I could not help but wonder if I was actually doing what I thought I was doing. In getting to know the “little ladies,” as my colleagues, the farmers, and the beekeepers we worked with called our buzzing study subjects, I got to know the objectives of entomology, and realized they were not exactly what I had wanted them to be or what I thought they were.

In short, that summer I was introduced to a world of contradictions, questions, and answers that I continued to think about for the following two years, up to and throughout my Summer Scholars experience. The concepts presented in this poster are a small part of the many ideas and rabbit holes I’ve chased up until now that include investigations into the history of beekeeping, the philosophy of science, the nature of work, disability studies, animal ethics, and more.

The research presented in this poster, which outlines the complicated nature of honey bee research and resilience thinking in entomology, will hopefully be part of a broader thesis project. In this broader project, I hope to illustrate how the cultural image of the honey bee both influences and hinders efforts to manage the European honey bee in the US, and questions the function of entomology in achieving this, especially in a world where honey bees are facing multiple, rapidly-changing, threats. Furthermore, I hope to ask what role the sciences play in affirming or denying the status of an environmental crisis, and what the consequences are of putting the onus of solving the ecological and agricultural crisis onto the shoulders of scientists. As I learned throughout this process, the things that draw people to bees, and drew me to bees, is often not a good representation of the actual practices of entomology or commercial beekeeping. I think it is important to pay attention to that tension, and ask how that happens, what negotiations scientists make to allow that to happen, and the consequences of that happening for bees and people.

5 thoughts on “Creating a Super-Organism: Complicating Honey Bee Research and Resilience Thinking

  • October 23, 2020 at 6:02 pm

    This is such a cool project Grace, and seems to encompass so much (and so many of your interests)! I love the image of you and your colleagues (the “little ladies”) doing field research. I also think that it is critical to take the time to examine how we treat and express our “love” for the organisms we use largely for the intended purpose of human betterment. Like you insinuate, “saving the bees”, for many, is not motivated by humans’ love of bees but by our own dependence on these creatures.

  • October 23, 2020 at 6:58 pm

    I love–and really respect how you embraced contradictions you observed in the lab and throughout your own bee-management experience and are using that to field further investigations. Some of the most generative investigations seem to come from exploring those awkward, incongruent spaces between what our expectations and the reality we work in. I am really looking forward to see the future of this project and learn more about etymology from your anthropological perspective. Great job, Grace!!

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:03 pm

    Grace, I loved reading more about this project – it’s so thought-provoking. I enjoyed where you break down the idea of “resilience thinking”. This type of work is so complicated because there are so many definitions of resilience that exist. Are we working to absorb the shock of a change? Adapt to it? Transform to a new system as a consequence of change? Depending how you conceptualize what resilience means to a system, that informs how you manage for resilient networks. I really appreciate how your work bridges the gap between human and natural systems, providing an opportunity to develop sustainable, reciprocal relationships between the human and natural worlds. So grateful for the chance to work with you this summer!

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    Hi Grace, I thought that it was amazing that you talked about the emotions that you went through while working on this project. By talking about the ethical perspective regarding researching bees and beehives was eye-opening, and I learned a lot from your blog post and poster.

  • October 23, 2020 at 8:09 pm

    This is so interesting, and I really appreciate pointed out the contradictions in something I had never realized was such a complicated issue. This also feels like a very important part of a larger conversation about conservation and what may seem best on paper vs what is actually best for us and the world around us. Very cool that you were critical of this experience and turned it into something positive.

Leave a Reply