Anthropologists do not traditionally study bees (or insects, or any non-human for that matter). Our main research method is 'participant-observation', in which we take part in our research subjects' worlds as well as observing them. We aim to get the insider's point of view, and those insiders are normally other human beings.
How can an anthropologist enter the world of the bee? I don't think that we can. What we can do however, is find out what other humans who are interested in bees think about bees' worlds. I've noticed that many beekeepers pay attention to what they think the bees' experiential world is like, and they shape their beekeeping practice around this. I've even read a book in which a beekeeper said that sometimes she tries to imagine that she is a bee, in order to anticipate what her bees need.
To conceptualise this, I've developed the Estonian biologist, Jacob von Uexküll's notion of the 'bee note' - the sensory cues in the environment that are significant for bees. Von Uexküll's project was to explore the Umwelt of different animals. He was interested in the close connection between anatomy, sensory perceptions, behaviour and the variation in experiential environments in different species in order to find out 'what life looks like from the perceptual side' (2001: 118). Different species can have different Umwelten even when they inhabit the same environment. Of the Umwelt of the honeybee he wrote:
'the richness in forms and colors of a flowering meadow, that is visible to the human eye, is very much simplified. For the honeybee there are only two visual cues for open and closed forms, these are enough to distinguish open flowers from closed buds. Only four basic colors are perceived: ultraviolet, blue, green and yellow, only the number of odors perceived by the bee is considerable.
The theme of the music for the honeybee is the collection of nectar and pollen. To find them the path that leads to them has to be marked with perceptual cues. This explains the choice of properties of flowers that become form, color, smell and taste perceptions to the bees. A honeybee meadow is something very different from a human meadow. It is a honeybee composition made up of bee notes and is much easier to comprehend than our normal human Umwelt compositions.' (2001: 120)
For von Uexküll the bee note involves bees only. My own twist on this concept is that the beenote is really a hybrid of human and bee experience. Our representations of bee experience are necessarily framed through a human sensory apparatus. I think we can therefore reconfigure the beenote as an index of how we pay attention to bees, noticing that beekeepers carefully construct beenotes to direct bees' activity - along beelines.
An example is this broodbox frame taken from a Smith Hive - a variation on the Langstroth hive that is widely used in Scotland.
Who do you think made this frame? Well, humans make the wooden frame and insert the hexagonally shaped wax foundation. The foundation is supported by a wire that zig zags across the frame. But this structure is not made by humans alone. The wax foundation incorporates a beenote - an invitation to bees from us humans to work together. The embedded hexagonal shapes, and its sensory qualities (the aroma of the beeswax) are a cue for honeybees to draw out the wax comb. You can see where the bees have capped cells to store honey at the top of the frame. This frame is a product of bees and humans working together. Furthermore, it takes the honeybees along what we can call a 'beeline' - in this case it helps the bees save energy building wax comb, allowing them to divert more efforts into honey production.
In our project we will be looking for the different beenotes that are noticed by different kinds of beekeepers and other people (e.g. scientists, gardeners, environmentalists) who are interested in bees. We will then analyse how these beenotes might then take bees and humans along different directions - shaping a variety of routes for human and bee societies.
Von Uexküll, J. (2001). "The new concept of Umwelt: a link between science and the humanities." Semiotica 134(1/4): 111-123.