OVERVIEW: Orientation Flight with Bees Around the World
Updated: May 27
HONEY BEES ALL AROUND THE WORLD
Orientation flight: in bee-speak, this is a specific way that young bees begin to place themselves in the world. At a few days old, bees will leave the hive entrance, and fly a short distance back and and forth to the hive in a circle 8, locating the hive in relation to the sun.
Orientation flight image above from beekeepclub.org
Like a new bee's orientation flight, I'm learning my place in the bee world by traveling to explore the varied and culturally informed relationships to hives and bees who call them home. My intention is to connect with a wide variety of bee-loving people who are willing to share thoughts on the state of beekeeping today, how our practices have evolved or sustained old ways, and how knowledge of bees and their needs have been shared by families and communities across generations. Beekeeping is ancient and spiritual as much as it is economic and functional, and without being intentional, we'll lose generations-old knowledge of bees in hives, caves, trees, and insights from communities around the world.
But most importantly, my hope is to connect with the bees themselves. I've had several people ask me how I came to this path, and several of those have asked me specifically "what do the bees want you to share?' I don't know the answer to that yet, and this path is about being in conversation - with bees and communities - to share what story emerges that is worth telling.
Recognizing that I am an outsider to nearly all of the communities that I'll be in, I must acknowledge that the perspective I'll be able to offer here is one filtered through the specific lens I have as a white woman from the United States. My relying on the translation skills of many, my asking questions that might be naive or culturally irrelevant, my position as a tall blue-eyed person with the privilege of travel among so much else, will inherently grant me a specific and narrow perspective. I've done my best to represent the voices and perspectives of the people who were willing to share with me. All people interviewed have been offered the chance to review the writing about themselves before I have published their pieces. I've specifically left out details that might put any person at odds with their communities. In that way, these stories are limited, erring on the side of respect rather than digging for or sharing every detail. In that approach, there are surely perspectives that I have missed or maybe even misrepresented, and any errors are fully mine.
My flight path starts in Asia, where Apis mellifera honeybees themselves originated, but where "keeping" was introduced through colonization, as it is in many parts of the world.
I'll see managed honey bees in clay pots and wild natural hives at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, meeting with Ceylon honey producers.
Joining communities in Thailand, I'll meet with villagers and traditional honey hunters north of Chiang Mai, supported by the work of researchers at Chiang Mai University and Asian pollinator network leaders.
In May I visit Merida in the Yucatan peninsula, the traditional home of stingless honey bees called melipona, with some of the larger productions of their tangy citrus honey and loads of propolis (bee glue made from resin that has amazing immunity boosters for the hive and humans).
I'll meet the Abejas ECOSUR team in Chiapas, home of the pro-land, pro-Indigenous Zapatista movement, to learn more about melipona and their relationships to people and place.
The ECOSUR bee lab roots bee ecology in culture, and is both researching bees (bumblebees, queen rearing, climate change) as well as working with indigenous communities for reintroducing practices of cultivating native bees.
On home turf in the US in May (with my dog Ruca), conversations with beekeepers, researchers, and neighbors might come more easily for me, but there's no less need to examine - through a critical and hopeful eye - how different approaches to beekeeping in the US works for the people, the land, and mostly the bees. Apis mellifera honeybees across the US were first imported from Europe in 1622, mainly from strains in Italy and Russia.
How we engage with this little bee - who has become beloved even as a non-native interloper - will be seen both through the lens of "Reimagining Beekeeping" at the College of Marin in Northern California and Oregon State University's course on the path to "master beekeeper".
In June, Italian beekeepers - I'm imagining old men, rich with beekeeping secrets - will let me take a look at European approaches. I'm assuming the artisanal food practices of making olive oil, pasta, and wine, will be infused into the practices of rearing bees and cultivating the pleasure of honey.
And finally, with a return to East Africa, I'll be back in community with beekeepers in Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, each with their variations of beekeeping Apis mellifera scutellata, the East African lowland honeybee.
In Ethiopia, the ancient town of Lalibela is named for the emperor who was surrounded by a swarm of bees as a baby. His mother saw this as a sign of his future reign, naming him Lalibela - "the bees recognize his sovereignty" in Old Agaw.
In visiting at least a few communities across Asia, the Americas, Europe, and East Africa, my intention is to contribute to a global conversation about how to better love the bees, and to learn ways that knowledge of bees and keeping is passed in communities.