On Technology: Beekeepers of the Mind

With this post, we’re excited to announce a new, ongoing series from Matthew Battles on the role of technology in our experience of the natural world. A fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Matthew’s monthly posts will explore the surprising history and potential future of the relationship between our tools and our environment—from bee boxes to the internet. In addition to his work at Harvard, Matthew is the author of several books, including Library: An Unquiet History and The Sovereignties of Invention, a collection of short stories.

In thinking about the deep history of the relationship between technology and nature, the domestication of plants and animals comes to mind. The link is a fraught and complicated one. Co-creators of agriculture and husbandry, domestic plants and animals mean many things across times and cultures; it’s worth resisting the tendency to treat them as technology by other means. But even if animals aren’t tools, tools are a consistent feature of the ways in which we forge relationships with them. The leashes and whistles of dog training; jesses and hoods in falconry; the rich tack-and-bridle catalog of horse culture—all are shaped by the peculiar ways in which humans come to know other creatures.

In this light, beekeeping is a special case—for although most hives today exist in apicultural contexts, it’s common to consider the honeybee a wild creature, its physiology and behavior largely unmodified by human intervention. This quality of bees and our relations with them came to mind when a friend getting started in beekeeping recently shared this video demonstrating the use of a “bee box”:

A curiously elegant, entirely analog tool traditionally used to find honeybee hives in the wild, the bee box functions like a lobster trap in miniature. Trapped, fed, and released, with a sugary sponge to entice her, the bee returns to the bee box after disgorging herself at the hive; by noting the round-trip time and direction of travel (bees do indeed make a beeline), the beekeeper gains a fair approximation of the location of the hive.

Today, even the hobbyist beekeeper gets her bees from the internet; the bee box is largely a thing of the past, an artifact of traditional methods quite unlike today’s mechanized and commodified apiculture with its trucked-around hives. With the honeybee on the brink of commercial extinction, new attention has been thrust upon the many species of solitary bees in the world, which, while they produce no honey, pollinate with all the industry of their hypersocial cousins. Curiosity about our relations with these less-heralded bees brought me to this second video, in which a solitary bee enthusiast in Britain demonstrates the tools and methods he uses to gently husband these insects:

Female solitary bees deposit a few eggs in holes in wood or the hollows of straw; the larvae spend the winter in hibernation, buzzing forth in the spring to begin their brief lives of droning pollination. The would-be solitary beekeeper prepares an array of nesting habitat for the solitary bees—drilled-out blocks of wood, or stacks of paper tubes and straw— carefully chosen and designed to appeal to the questing bees’ exacting standards. Throughout his videos, the solitary beekeeper demonstrates an intense, curiosity-fueled devotion to the bees: keeping the tubes clean and free of parasites, carefully sheltering and tending the estivating larvae through the winter months, eagerly documenting their awakening in spring.

These apicultural interventions—the bee box and the solitary beekeeper’s art—express a kind of interspecies imaginary, an attempt to inhabit the world of another creature, and ultimately to enlist it as an enabler of, even active participant in, that work of imagination. But beyond the interspecies encounter, or alongside it, framing and furthering it, is this work of making. The bee box and the solitary bee houses are works of craft that embody certain functional understandings of the needs and ways of other species. Crucially, their designs also take account of limits to our understanding—the points at which our empathy reaches the interspecies border, where we necessarily place some of the cognitive burden on the other. The bee box preeminently acknowledges that the bees know how to find their way through the inflorescent environment, to locate their hive precisely in the landscape—an ability which, pure blind fortune aside, we lack. The bee box is a kind of interface for an act of shared, interspecies cognition in the wild.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that when tools work, they become invisible to us. The hammer in hand is a mere extension of our will; the handle breaks, however, and suddenly the hammer presents itself to us as a problem. Too often this functionalism, this mere instrumentalism, drives not only our use of tools, but our relationship with the environment at large. I think, however, that the beekeeping implements demonstrate more give-and-take among our tools, ourselves, and the world. Their use seems to depends upon an active meditation on the animals, and how we might make a world in common with them.

What draws us into close contact, into husbandry, with a creature that is so different and so little involved with human life? Of course, the solitary bees are pollinators, and the pollinators are in crisis. But this is an abstract and indirect kind of produce. What are the solitary beekeepers harvesting? Is it the strange savor of another species’ habits and qualities, the form of life of another life form? The solitary beekeeper looks at reeds and bits of wood and imagines ways to shape them into the solitary bee’s world. In these tools and crafts, these interfaces, I feel like we glimpse a kind of toolmaking that embodies a rich and renewable relationship with the natural world. These are the original networks; it’s the “internet” that is the metaphorical one.

These tools express a cross-species sympathy that is distinctive to humans in kind if not degree. (Perhaps their emergence among us is akin to the mimicry that arises among other species, camouflage in a cognitive, cultural key.) Could we find a way to extend our tool-making sympathies to comprehend the threat from Varroa mites and long-release pesticides; to fashion wise choices in landscape development and resource use; to confront the runaway prospects of climate change? Is there a tool, a device, an app for that? It’s a tall order—and yet I want to believe that in the gentler networks of solitary beekeeping, we catch a hopeful glimpse.

Follow Matthew on Twitter at @MatthewBattles.


  1. Grassroots solutions to crises like the decline of pollinators will continue to be important. While no amount of citizen lobbying in the US seems to sway the EPA to protect bees from harmful ag chemicals, perhaps an army of backyard bee box-ers could make an important contribution.

  2. Cool post – I did not know much about solitary bees. (Adding to list of things to look up)

  3. Glad you wrote this article, glad you corrected your gender terms (all bees in the field are female), glad you are doing essential investigation work into how technology can be life-friendly, partnering nature, not manipulating cells, creatures, as though they were interchangeable parts of the human cultural machine.
    Keep going!

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