An Agate Original
A conversation with the poet and the entomologist whose teamwork produced an anthology of poems about bees.
If Bees Are Few is an anthology of 2,500 years of poetry about bees. It is the inspiration of Minneapolis poet James P. Lenfestey, who collected and curated the poems. Proceeds of sales of the book go to the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, founded by Dr. Marla Spivak, a MacArthur Fellow and the University’s Distinguished McKnight Professor in Entomology.
AGATE: Jim Lenfestey, what gave you the idea to do this book?
JL: Two experiences actually. The first was a great joyful task I took on from the revered Bill Holm, who had a fantasy about making an anthology of poems about pigs. He never got to it, and finally I said, “I’m going to do it!” It was just a lark, the idea of poems about pigs, but I found them from all over the world, and that got me thinking about anthologies. Then, I was a sort of ineffective beekeeper myself back in the ‘70s and I’ve followed the problems of bees and the work of Dr. Marla Spivak, who’s done some of the best work in the world on bees, and I had this idea — why don’t I do an anthology of poems about bees, see what I can find, and all the revenues from the book — such as there are — will go to the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota which Dr. Spivak has founded. So that was the spark.
Then I got some friends working on it, gathering nectar in the world of poetry. The analogy is apt: you touch down to gather nectar here, touch down there, then you come back and dance a little and communicate it! That’s how it went.
AGATE: How did you come to include a Foreword by climate activist Bill McKibben?
JL: I had just read his memoir called Oil and Honey, which describes how a journalist became a leader of a global movement to fix climate change, and in the book McKibben mentions that he finds solace in visiting a neighbor’s apiary. I know Bill a little, and I emailed him to ask if he’d write a foreword for this book and he agreed to it. Can you believe it? I can’t believe it!
AGATE: Well, it’s certainly a good book for a good cause. Where can people find it?
JL: At local bookstores, from Amazon… and signed copies are available from me at email@example.com.
AGATE: Dr. Spivak, please give a quick summary of why bees are in trouble.
MS: All of our bees are in trouble. This includes our honey bees that are not native to the United States but are the only bees that produce honey, and all of our wild native bees — or many of them — are in trouble for many of the same reasons. Researchers agree that honey bees are confronted with parasites and diseases of their own, and also as they forage in the environment they encounter a lot of pesticide use, which includes insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. And because our landscapes don’t have enough flowers, many bees are currently suffering from poor nutrition. So in general they have diseases and parasites and they run into pesticides and then there’s simply a lack of flowers to provide good nutrition.
AGATE: Did I read that you have created a new breed of bees?
MS: When I first came to the University of Minnesota in the early ‘90s, I started breeding honey bees for hygienic behavior. This is a trait that’s in all bees (I just enhanced it in some stocks), in which the bees are able to sniff out diseased and parasitized brood and weed it out of the nest. These hygienic honey bees are widely used now, but in general scientists have not intervened to change wild bees.
AGATE: What did you think when Jim Lenfestey told you he wanted to do this book of poetry about bees?
MS: I was delighted! There are so many people who want to help bees right now, and many people want to become beekeepers or want to plant flowers for bees, which is great. But then there’s other people who come to us and say, “I really love bees and I want to help them, but I don’t want to be a beekeeper and I’m not a gardener. I do art,” or “I’m a poet,” or “I do photography.” So within the lab we have a program called the Bee Squad which works with urban beekeepers mostly, but we also have a Bee Arts program, to allow a space for artists to come to us with their thoughts and art and music about bees. And we realized that this really helps so many other people get connected to bees in ways that science can’t do.
AGATE: How can art and poetry help bees?
MS: Humans and bees have this really interesting, close relationship. Poets have been writing about bees since biblical times, really. This is what Jim Lenfestey has collected for the book. So bees somehow — honey bees — go right to people’s hearts. They’re used for honey production and pollination services across the United States and there’s a lot of good scientific research on them, and then they’re also used in poetry, art, literature, and music, [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] “Flight of the Bumblebee” for example. And this has been true for a very long time. What’s interesting about bees, unlike so many other insects, is how they reach people, how they grab people in different ways, through the heart or the intellect, or both.
AGATE: In your Afterword, you say your work requires you to think like a bee. Can you describe what that’s like?
MS: I think that’s true of science in general: if you impose your human values or culture on the topic you’re studying, you may not get to the truth. I study bee behavior — how they keep themselves healthy, their natural health care if you will — so in order to really understand what they do, I have to ask questions that are coming from the point of view of the bees themselves, either the colony or the individual bee.
AGATE: Can you give an example?
MS: I guess an easy one is, I can’t simply ask the bees how they feel. If I’m studying their health, I can’t ask, “How do you feel today?” I have to ask a more specific question. Possibly I have to run a test of their immune system or measure a behavior or something in the colony that would allow me to assess how their health is without being able to get at what a human would like to know first, which is, “How do you feel?”
Bees can’t talk, and they have feelings but not reflective thinking, they don’t think about themselves, so in order to interview, if you will, a colony of bees, in order to ask some scientific questions, I need to hone my questions down so they can respond in a way that make sense. So if I ask them a scientific question, I run an experiment — which is what science is, a series of questions that are set up as experiments — the response they give me indicates how good my question was.
AGATE: Your description of the challenges facing bees sounds dire; at this point do you have hope?
MS: Yes, I do have hope. Most of our honey bees are managed by beekeepers who are really struggling to come up with ways to keep them healthy, and I think we can do this. Many people are planting a lot more flowers to provide good nutrition for bees, and when bees have good nutrition they’re really better able to fight off diseases and they can detoxify some of the pesticides they encounter, so good nutrition is key. Planting flowers also helps our native bees, our wild bees, that are not protected in managed colonies and don’t produce honey. The vast majority of our wild bees are solitary, they live all on their own in the ground or in little stems, and there’s no way to know where they are or how to protect them other than to make sure they have lots of clean flowers, meaning flowers that aren’t contaminated with pesticides or herbicides, and that they have undisturbed nesting sites, patches of ground that are not plowed or disturbed, not mulched, and stems that they can burrow into to nest in.
AGATE: We’re heading into the coldest part of the year here. What are the bees doing now? Do the beekeepers nervously await the spring?
MS: During the winter, the queen stops laying eggs and the bees cluster together and shiver, generating heat. Their muscles are fueled by eating the honey they stored during the summer (beekeepers only harvest the surplus — bees here need 75-100 lbs of stored honey to make it through the winter). So the Minnesota beekeepers that keep their bees, backyard beekeepers mostly, are nervously awaiting the spring. The commercial beekeepers – those that depend on bees for their livelihood through honey production and pollination services — have already moved their bees to the South or to California for the winter and they will bring them back in May.
Additional reading: How do honey bees differ from wild bees?
Many thanks to photographer Jeni O’Brien for sharing her images. Find more of her work at http://jeniobrien.com/