R. Marsland

The Bee Line

The Bee Line

News of the decline of bee populations has captured the public imagination, leading to an upsurge of interest in bees and beekeeping. Urban beekeeping is on the rise in cities across the world, and gardeners are planting wild flowers on which bees and other pollinating insects can forage. In London, architects design urban spaces for bees to live in, and protestors dressed in bee outfits have staged demonstrations outside parliament in Westminster. Earlier this year, beehives were even installed at the Scottish Parliament. 

But what can anthropologists possibly have to say about bees? The clue lies in our historical fascination with bee societies, and the connections that we draw between the lives of these social insects and human utopias. The analogy between bee society and human society goes right back to Aristotle, whose texts on natural history compare bees and humans, seeing the bees’ “king” as evidence of the political organization of bees. 


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.

Learning to Read the Urban Landscape

On a cold Sunday in March, a group of well-wrapped up bumblebee enthusiasts met up at the Water of Leith Conservation Trust Visitor Centre for the first BeeScene Bumblebee Survey of the season. This citizen science survey was organised by the Scottish Waterways Trust. The findings will be used for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s national Beewalk database, and will provide useful information on the health of the canal environment.

We walked down a mile-long stretch of the Union Canal in Edinburgh armed with a Guide to Bees of Britain, and under the expert guidance of Stephen and Willie we scanned the greenery on the side of the canal for signs of bumblebee life. At this time of year it is only likely that queen bumblebees would be seen. Each year only bumblebee queens survive into winter, and in early spring they come out of hibernation and collect pollen and nectar to feed a new brood of worker bees. We didn’t see any queens – perhaps it was too cold, but Anna (herbalist and forager at Floramedica) showed us a surprising variety of wild plants that will provide forage for bumblebees and other insects later in the year.