Bee hives have been used as metaphors for human societies for centuries. Hives buzz with activity produced from the coordinated efforts of a multitude of working parts, the most important of which are the female worker bees. Worker bees instinctively provide for the well-being of the hive, and they can also provide for the well-being of women around the world who perform a similar role within their families.
In “Beeconomy: What Women and Bees Can Teach Us about Local Trade and the Global Market,” noted bee expert, Kentucky native and Eastern Kentucky University professor Tammy Horn traces the spread of beekeeping across the globe from its origins in Africa. Along the way, she examines the symbiotic relationship between women and bees and discusses the payoffs of a social system that encourages more female beekeepers.
Horn, who was raised with beekeepers on both sides of her family, is the director of Coal Country Beeworks, a multiservice project in which surface mine sites are reclaimed with pollinator habitat in eastern Kentucky. She has authored a previous book, “Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation.” Having traveled to every continent except Antarctica to study the methods and culture of beekeeping in different parts of the globe, Horn has accumulated a diverse body of ideas and traditions.
In her newest book, Horn discusses beekeeping as a source of fulfillment and personal growth for women and explores the negative connotations that socialized apicultural phrases such as “queen bee” or “worker bee” can have when associated with women. Such phrases play into the predominant view that women are of lesser value than their male counterparts; a view that keeps many women from being able to attain the lifestyle that they desire, she maintains. Horn combats these social norms by introducing women throughout the book who have used beekeeping as an opportunity to offset financial deficits and to manage motherhood, careers, marriage, and single parenthood, all while helping to promote healthy pollinator ecosystems.
“Beeconomy” tracks the evolution of beekeeping as well as the socialization of analogies regarding women as both have spread around the world. Horn organizes each chapter around a specific region of the world and paints an expansive picture of apiculture using the wide range of beekeeping roles that women fill in each area, from honey gatherers and queen producers to swarm catchers.
Beginning in Africa, Horn moves on to the honey-hunting cultures of India and discusses the effect of recent economic development for women. She then moves across eastern Asia to Russia, examining how current affairs are resurrecting ancient agricultural ideas associated with bee goddesses.
Moving west, Horn describes the bee-related religions of Europe before exploring North America’s introduction to beekeeping in the seventeenth century. She pays special attention to beekeeping in North America because of the complex apicultural systems that women there have developed and also notes the impressive advancements in organic standards and medicinal honey made by women of Australia. Praise for the quick strides in apiculture technology produced by South American women concludes her transglobal journey.
Horn emphasizes the importance that bees play in supplying food for the global population and in supporting local plant species. She connects pollination with food production and demonstrates the role that pollinators and beekeepers play in fending off invasive plant species. With one in three bee hives in North America being lost to colony collapse disorder, along with similar losses occurring around the world, beekeepers are becoming even more vitally important players in economic and ecological trends.
“Beeconomy” is the first book of its kind to not only provide plentiful evidence supporting the need for more beekeepers but also to offer encouragement for women everywhere to enrich their lives by cultivating bees.
Following is a conversation with author Tammy Horn:
How did you first become involved with beekeeping?
My maternal grandfather from Leslie County, Ky., was a beekeeper. After years of shunning the agricultural and scientific worlds because of the difficulty I associated with them, I was literally transformed by the bees and by my grandfather’s unconditional love of bees one day when I assisted him in the beeyards. Suddenly, emerging from the opacity of academe, the world became specific in nice ways: trees had names and definitive bloom seasons; honey bees had roles and responsibilities in the hive.
My grandfather, too, transformed in front of me, talking very gently to the bees in a conversational tone I had not associated with him before. Of course, as I learned more, I began to fill in the gaps of my education: I had had no idea of the relationship between pollination and food/flowers. Much of the quality of my lifestyle, I realized, depended upon honey bees and other insects. As our country has continued to lose one in every three hives of bees, I decided that the world needed more beekeepers, not English professors.
This book explores the historical role of women in beekeeping around the world. Why did you choose this particular theme for your work?
My paternal grandmother from Harlan County, Ky., had been a beekeeper, but no one could tell me why she started keeping bees. I wasn’t born when she kept bees, and I didn’t keep bees until long after she had died. I didn’t realize until I was about two years into “Beeconomy” that my first book, Bees in America, is very much my maternal grandfather’s book; “Beeconomy” is very much my paternal grandmother’s book. It is an effort to conjure my grandmother’s gentle smile, her soft Cumberland River accent and self-effacing laugh from sepia-toned photographs and share with her this love of bees. Finally, of course, those memories deflate and dissolve in dreams, but the women profiled in this book have inspired me with their creativity, tenacity and clarity.
You also delve into the spiritual and cultural connections of bees with femininity. In a quick summary, where do you believe these relationships came from?
Around the world, the honey bees’ ability to communicate, proliferate (seemingly without intimacy), and produce honeys from all types of flowers have become time-honored symbols for a human world filled with complex relationships. Being natural sign-seekers, people concern themselves with how to negotiate intimacy (chastity being a time-honored value), difficult emotions (how to keep your cool instead of being a hothead), conversations and struggles with mortality (my legal will specifies that in lieu of a funeral I want my bees to be told and the hives draped with black clothes—no need for a fancy coffin). The bee hive has been a convenient source of signs to some of those questions as societies struggle to define cultural norms. But the bee hive has also led to some fallacies regarding human relationships, specifically concerning women’s roles in society, that need to be re-examined.
In doing your research, you have traveled to every continent, save Antarctica. What is your most memorable experience from your travels?
From a beekeeper’s perspective, there were two major international experiences. The first was a 2006 visit with Las Cachinallas in Mexicali, Mexico. The women were doing “bare-knuckle beekeeping” in such difficult environmental and cultural conditions with such grace and dignity that the visit was a “watershed” moment for me. I realized that we could use their cooperative model in Appalachia—and should. The only reason we weren’t doing it was because no woman, including myself at that time, would dare walk away from a conventional career to try to create a new type of economic model. A 2007 visit to Peabody Coal in Queensland, Australia, was when I began to see the value of pollinator habitat and to work with industries as partners instead of adversaries. So, I left teaching to concentrate on forest-based beekeeping and extension in eastern Kentucky.
You are currently involved in Coal Country Beeworks, an initiative in eastern Kentucky. How have your experiences contributed to this work? Did you witness any similar movements in other countries?
As I mentioned before, Mexico and Australia were important in helping me define rural beekeeping initiatives in an industrial world. I needed the geographical distance to wrap my mind around legal structures governing extractive industries. I began to see that one of the main problems in eastern Kentucky is how the U.S. surface mining laws are written and how they are interpreted by the civilian engineers who have to implement them. Pollinator habitat has not been a priority until very recently. Interestingly, traveling to South Africa was also helpful in defining a new modus operandi for corporate investments in pollinator communities. In 2005, when the price of copper flat-lined, Zambia paid unemployed miners to learn beekeeping. It seemed to me that the U.S. could employ similar strategies in Appalachia. Presently, the U.S. imports honey from China and Asia, imports wax from Africa, and imports queen bees from Hawaii. I think if coal companies in Kentucky can plant pollinator habitat, Appalachia can change those patterns of importation.
You dealt with many different cultures. What obstacles did this present? Did anything surprise you?
The grande dame of beekeeping, Eva Crane, once said, “You’ll be a beginner for twenty years.” In visiting different cultures, I am most surprised by the feeling of beginning again every time I stepped into the field. I learn new flowers, new bloom times, new hives, new ways of lighting a smoker, new cultural standards, new languages, new laws, new myths, etc. The surprises emerge often and in a variety of ways. Fortunately, the kindness of beekeepers continues to surprise me. I have never taken it for granted, but I continue to be amazed at how beekeepers care for each other. I continue to be unpleasantly surprised, however, by the challenges that federal and state governments create for beekeepers. An eighteenth century literature professor and pollination specialist, Christian Konrad Sprengel, once said: “There should be standing armies of bees.” I agree and lament the fact that we don’t have the bees or the beekeepers needed to safeguard our food production capabilities.
As a woman in the apiary industry, have you noticed any differences between how you and your male counterparts are received?
There are so many more women beekeepers attending bee workshops and conferences now that if there are differences, I am rarely cognizant of them. The bee community has been in constant flux for much of the time I’ve been a beekeeper: there are different types of hives available, there are many more pathogens to be aware of, there are more economic stresses of families to consider, and the issues of food/pesticides have forced serious discussion about contamination. These are issues that affect women who are often the primary food-producers in the family. So, women are much more educated about the topics and logically, want to know how to change and perhaps “fix” food production “breakdowns.” Women subconsciously and consciously contribute to their food budgets and want to be aware of how to safeguard the food their children eat.
What does the future hold for women in beekeeping?
Women live longer than men, earn less money than men, and tend to be the primary caregiver and food producer for both children and older family members. Beekeeping can be a way to supplement their incomes, improve the quality of diets and medical care, and provide joy and structure in improving one’s environment. If the past has taught me anything, it is that the future is full of opportunities for women who want to think about beekeeping with creativity.
While some major challenges may be geographical or biological (pathogens), most challenges are created within ourselves or by our society. Economic diversity depends upon landscape diversity. As our world approaches the six billion population mark, women have to take more responsibility in creating an economy in which the environment matters, not just for children but for pollinators. In my mind, this responsibility is not a burden—it is much-needed joy. Emerson said, “The world laughs in flowers.” It is time women laughed in unison.
From University Press of Kentucky.
Photo by Peter Shanks via Flickr, used through the creative commons.