between humans and bees

What is the relationship between bees and humans? For producers, bees are directly related to their survival. Some respect them, others treat them like racing horses. For honey lovers, bees are important but remain mostly invisible. They emphasize the product, but not the species’ well-being. For those who practice herbalism, bees may be considered central in the healing arts, but rarely as members of a wider network capable of agency. For farmers, bees offer pollination services, often in the context of industrial production. For ecologists, bees hold one of the keys of planetary balance (therefore of human survival too) on their small wings. For some, bees are just annoying insects. Not as filthy as cockroaches, neither as dangerous as tarantulas. Of course, for people suffering from allergies bees signify danger – perhaps understandably so.

Whatever the adopted approach may be, bees remain an entity that is separate from humans and furthermore, they are understood through a strictly anthropocentric perspective. But could we understand bees under a bee-centric perspective instead?

First of all, one thing to do is perhaps re-examine one of the basic polarities within the western civilisation placing nature on one side and culture on the other (Descola, 2013), as if they were two parallel trajections that rarely meet or shape each other. And let’s take it a step further: some people believe that it is only humans who can create a civilisation. But if civilisations are not an exclusively human privilege and if nature is also a state of consciousness transcending the externalised notion of environment, it is then difficult to approach bees under the resctricting understanding of a species that exists only to serve human needs or other (also human) meaning-making processes.

We need to learn how to make sense of the world around us again, let our connection to it teach us, as we consciously try to understand it from the point of view of the Other. Moore and Kosut (2013) refer for instance to the importance of intra-species mindfulness, whereas as species come in touch with each other (in this case humans and bees), learn also how to be in touch with their own consciousness and self: their sensations, and therefore all embodied aspects of their contact with different species. It is not only the bees, neither just ourselves giving birth to the awareness of the Other, but the relationship among us – both on a material and a symbolic level. During our interaction with bees, we taste them, touch them, hear them, smell them or sense them – directly or indirectly. This is how we connect with them and through this connection we define each other, giving a meaning to our (shared) existence. Together. Not separately. Always in a context of fluidity.

This is how we come to realise, these days when the forests around us are burning and with them bees burn – among others – too, that we are not just loosing ecosystems, but aspects of our selves and a plethora of relationships. We are worlds entangled in a mutually constitutive process. Barad (2007) refers to the notion of intra-action when it comes to relationships between species. With this term she means that action is generated and co-shaped in in-between spaces, within relationships. By approaching the bees or any other species, we are approaching aspects of our selves and this is how we change. Become enriched. Become more permeable, less compartmentalised.

Of course, romantisizing such relationships makes no sense. Nature is full of challenges and conflicts. Bees – if one approaches them closely – are fluffy and sometimes carry small, colorful polen balls, but if you try to touch them lightly with your fingers, you will be in for an unpleasant surprise. Because they have their quirks too. They also have their own mind: whoever has approached a beehive while being angry knows very well what the implications of this anger may be.

And while we are always carrying our human nature with us, awareness of the ways it affects understanding and our relationship to bees, as well as any other non-human species, is very important.

What would bees have to teach us? Tsing (1995) writes that one of the problems presented in the attempts to study bees is a generalised orientation toward static perceptions and particular values. For instance, bees are approached as domestic insects with an emphasis on hierarchy, family structures or production – never on independence. Therefore, behaviours such as swarming are seen as problems, as setbacks in need of a fix, whereas bee agency is missing. Similarly, there is an emphasis on bee compliance – with bees building their honeycombs within wooden frames, but never on the connections they create between frames and wooden hives: that is, of all the ways they invent in order to extend, alter or appropriate the predefined canvas of human systems. It is exactly this unruly nature of bees, as well as the awareness of their vulnerability, that urges them to use their sting even if it means death to them (Green and Ginn, 2014), but also an awareness of the ephemeral nature of life.

Hence, when it comes to bees, productivity is not the main narrative, but rather inventiveness, art, independence and many other similar characteristics. If we could see bee lives for what they are, we could perhaps do the same with human lives. Human or non-human lives are not necessarily characterised by difference, but synergy and the creation of common grounds (Haraway, 2008). You can ponder upon the relationship between bees and human-made gardens – the difference between a lawn garden and a garden hosting a variety of plants in which bees are encouraged to cocreate. What would this difference mean about the resulting human identities? In the first case an emphasis is given on uniformity, while on the second on a particular “tribe” of humans where the central identity is that of a “pollinator” (Ellis, 2021). A human who lives life as a pollinator is being taught by bees how to see diversity as an integral aspect of the self.

Awareness of synergies and common grounds are very important issues for psychology, but also psychotherapeutic practices in general, as they extend the meaning of relationship and belonging. The psychotherapeutic arts need the bees – as any other non-human species – as well as the different states of consciousness they bring along, as much as they need different methodologies or approaches of all issues concerning humans and their (human or non-human) communities.