A sterling silver sculpture of a honeybee

Finding Hope and Community with Honeybees: A Conversation with Heather Swan

The decline of honeybees has been the topic of much national conversation in recent years. Their decline drastically impacts agricultural landscapes and communities, and it is a symptom of global biodiversity declines. It’s hard to find a positive take on honeybees anywhere. Or so I thought until I read Dr. Heather Swan’s new book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field.

Heather Swan is a poet and artist as well as a scholar of environmental literature. With this diverse training, Swan crafted a gripping creative nonfiction book that blends interviews, poetry, and traditional research into a story. It’s a physically beautiful object as well—the chapters are interspersed with gorgeous galleries of bee-themed artwork, some of which is featured here.  Astonishingly, given the material and nature of some of the art presented, her book is full of hope for honeybees and the rest of us.

I spoke with Dr. Swan across the continental span at the start of the new year—she in California and I in New York. Our conversation resembles the nonlinear flight paths of bees themselves. We touch on environmental disaster and rebirth, particularities of place and season, whether honeybees are wildlife, and if we have the language to explain what it means to make kin with social insects.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Kaitlyn Stack Whitney: You’ve written this beautiful book called Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field. So much of this book is about resilience. So much of connecting with honeybees is about seasonality and your book is in part about changes. In the season of winter when beekeeping isn’t as active, are bees on your mind? 

Heather Swan: I’m worried about them all the time. This winter is a really cold one. I worry, do they have enough honey? Is it close enough to them so they can get to it without dying on their way? Is there any moisture in the hive? Is the windbreak big enough or strong enough? I certainly think about them.

A portrait of Heather Swan

Heather Swan. Photo courtesy of the author, 2017.

There’s a place where I walk in the woods, and there’s a hive in a tree. It struck me the other day as I was walking by there that no one is taking care of those bees, and they’ve figured out how to survive in that hollow tree. I think about the bees in the winter and I hope they’re warm enough. I have a relationship with them that’s unique, not to beekeepers, but to people who don’t think about insects as being something that you could care really deeply about. My relationship with them is really emotional, so I do worry about them like I would worry about a friend.

KSW: You describe people working together with their bees. That sounds a lot like farming. Are honeybees wildlife to you or are they farm animals? Do you think it matters which one it is?

HS: I think they’re domesticated animals. They’re part of our agricultural system. They have been for thousands of years. They can exist in the wild, and they have a wildness to them in terms of their being so different than humans. But, they are also very much a part of our human systems. When I started this book I didn’t realize where I would end up. I realized that talking about the story of the honeybee, for me, is really a way of talking about a much larger problem that will affect [not only] the native bee populations, but butterfly populations, bird populations. Part of it is recognizing that, when we have such a huge role in our ecosystems, we have to be more responsible, we have to be more careful and thoughtful.

The solutions will be different in every community whether you’re talking about a biotic community or a human community. Hopefully, we can live a little more harmoniously as we go forward with thinking more deeply about some of our impacts. There are people who are concerned that, by my focusing on the honeybee, I’m not talking about the native bees or the other pollinators. But I would say that if I can get somebody who doesn’t care about insects at all to start thinking about honeybees, that might open the doors to think about the lives of all of these nonhuman creatures that are being affected by our behavior every day.

Three women sit at a table playing chess. They are sculpted out of beeswax.

Aganetha Dyck and the honeybees, detail from MMasked Ball series, 2006-2007. Image courtesy of the artist.

KSW. Between each chapter of the book, you have art galleries with really beautiful artwork. They’re not just images. They’re also commentary; they’re their own chapters. It’s another kind of evidence that you’re presenting. You don’t just go and talk to growers and scientists. You have put art about honeybees on the same level as those, which is wonderful. How did you decide what art to include and what argument it would make in your book?

HS: Part of my decision to include the artwork is because it really is a different way of thinking about the world. You see a work of art, and it creates a different response in you than a list of statistics, which is not good or bad, it’s just different. So, I felt like it was really great to be able to include both. To say, here are some ways we can think about these things visually. I offer these pieces as things for other people to experience and think about. It could be that people don’t respond to it in the same way that I do, and that’s fine, but I do think that the work is making its own kind of argument.

KSW: You blend so many kinds of evidence. Multiple truths are existing together. That seems like one of the advantages of bringing these different threads of evidence together is that the art, the scientific literature, and the lived experiences of growers and beekeepers are all different kinds of truths that are existing together in the world. Did you have other experiences [while writing the book] of there being multiple truths that you’re holding together?

HS: When I started writing this book I really wanted to find one answer. I wanted to say, here’s the reason that the bees are dying and be able to say, OK, let’s just solve that problem and everything will be fine. Of course, we know that’s not true. There’s not just one problem. It’s a whole host of problems including habitat loss, pesticide use, and viruses. There are things that we could do that allow us to at least make our impact more gentle. And so, as I was realizing the problems, I also realized that there were all of these different solutions that were also going to be available for us to latch on to and feel hopeful about.

A painting of a woman looking over her shoulder. Her dress and the background are honeycombed.

Lea Bradovich, Look Homeward Queen Bee. Oil on panel, 18 x 14 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

For me, this book was so much about trying to regain a sense of hope, because I think that one of the concerns that I have is: how are our students going to continue to feel like they can make an impact if things seems so dire? There are so many big-picture things that we can think about, but there are also so many ways in our daily lives, in our own work, and in our own sphere of influence, that we can be making smaller changes that actually affect ecosystems on a smaller level. What I would say is that for anybody that is in love with a particular species of insect, tree, or whatever it is, that working on that is actually very important. I left this project feeling incredibly hopeful that there are so many ways forward.

KSW: Something we have to do for the people we care for is give them threads of hope. Is that something you wanted to achieve with the book?

HS: I often see the tendency to rely on an apocalyptic narrative to motivate people. While the apocalyptic narrative is important in waking people up to the potential devastation that we could face, or currently are facing, we can’t end there. Everyone in the world needs to feel like there are steps. And one of the interesting things about having a global problem is that it becomes so overwhelming. So that was why it was really neat to spend time thinking about these really small communities that are changing things on a scale that feels manageable, that feels like you do have an impact. You can take a devastated community in Milwaukee and change it. You can change the landscape there. You can change the lives of people there. And that’s incredible! That’s hopeful, and that’s real. That’s the part that we don’t often talk about, and I know that there are a lot of other academics and writers and teachers who are thinking about this, too. How do we offer a path forward to students? Part of it is just showing all the possibilities.

I was pessimistic myself. I felt very sad when I started writing this book, and I don’t feel as sad anymore. Even though we’re still facing a lot of the same things, I realized there were so many people in so many disciplines who are working to change things. And so, I do leave the project feeling hopeful.

KSW: The problems are still there, but now you have this community to engage with to help problem-solve, brainstorm, and just celebrate the successes with. That leads me to thinking about Donna Haraway, who has been talking lately about making kin and, she says, not babies. I’m wondering how you think about this idea of making kin in terms of relating to nonhumans or just nonfamily members, building your extended community?

A mixed media painting of a young girl in a long dress.

Sibylle Peretti: St. Francis. Glass, 38 x 23 in. Image courtesy of the artist.

HS: One of the challenges for me in writing this book is that most people don’t like insects. That’s a hard thing to start to feel warm and fuzzy about. And I have many students who are afraid of bees. They were stung once or they think that hornets are honeybees. So, they have this idea that all insects are dangerous or bad. We have that with lots of species because of not understanding them. As a writer, one of the things that I can bring to the table in this kin-building idea. I think that when you read somebody a poem, for instance, it stops them and creates an intimacy, or could create an intimacy, with something that is so other than you. That’s different than saying the pollinators are all dying.

There’s a poem by Mary Oliver where she picks up this grasshopper. She starts describing it, it’s in her hand, and she talks about the way he’s chewing with his jaws moving back and forth instead of up and down, and he’s rubbing his little tiny wings together, and suddenly you’re allowed in to an experience of what it might be like to be that thing. An empathy building can happen through poetry, art, music, film and all of these non-science disciplines. Of course, you need all of that science, too. You see that in the book, but it does have the potential to create something more like kin. To recognize that these are creatures that we’re sharing the planet with, that deserve to continue to be on the planet with us, and that, in fact, if you pull one part of that ecosystem away, it’s going to affect it. I think that the spider web is such a wonderful image, because if you rip one strand of the spider web out it’s going to affect all of the other parts of the web, certainly. We can start to think about having relationships with nonhumans that are deeper, that are ones of caring, even respect.

KSW: Your book is an amazing attempt at bringing solutions and new ways of thinking about our connection to these very different creatures. It’s not necessarily a love-based relationship, but an appreciation and a respect for all these different ways of being on the planet. I want everyone to go out and read your book. 

Featured image: Elizabeth Goluch: Bumblebee. Sterling silver, 14k and 18k gold, 7 x 7 x 4 in. Collection of David Weishuhn, Toronto, Canada. Image courtesy of the artist.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Heather Swan is a lecturer in the Department of English and the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her book, Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field is now available from The Pennsylvania State University Press. Contact.

Kaitlin Stack Whitney is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the Science, Technology, & Society department and Environmental Science program. A former scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency, she has worked on insect conservation as both a researcher and regulator. She is an alumna of UW-Madison’s Center for Culture, History, and Environment and former Edge Effects editor-at-large. WebsiteContact.

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