Buzzworthy backstory: Nelson alum shares story of the honeybee in latest book

November 29, 2017

From the dancing of honeybees to the production of honey, Heather Swan has always found honeybees to be fascinating creatures. So, it is not much of a surprise to hear her lifelong relationship with the honeybees eventually led to her publishing a book exploring the relationship between honeybees and humans.

Swan, UW-Madison lecturer of environmental literature and writing and an alumna of the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History, and Environment, recently launched a new book which highlights the many innovative interdisciplinary projects people are doing around the world to help stop pollinator decline titled “Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field.”

In many ways, Swan is very similar the honeybees she studies. When engaged in conversation, she will often jump from one topic to another, similar to the behavior of a honeybee jumping from flower to flower when harvesting nectar. This gave her the inspiration to organize the book in the same way.

Swan uses visual imagery and creative narrative to discuss the various reasons for pollinator population decline. By layering art alongside the stories in a “mosaic fashion,” Swan said she can accurately communicate both the plight of the honeybees both the plight of the honeybees and the ways in which ecologists, farmers, beekeepers, biologists and many others are working to save them.

“The book is really a good representation of all of the different things I’m interested in, so the artists had to be there because art is so important to me as a person,” Swan said. “It really frames the way I see the world. I wanted it to feel like it was part of the flow of the conversation [in the book].”

Swan believes art is an essential component of cultural change and awareness. By including exhibits of art to enhance the stories, she believes she is creating a different kind of awareness for the honeybee, one that might even be more effective that data and figures alone. One of the examples in the book is an art canvas that uses dead bees to create unique patterns and evoke feelings of sadness in the audience. She said seeing the issue framed through the artistic lens, rather than just reading about it, makes the viewer see the issue from a different perspective—a perspective Swan argues can often be more personal than without the art.

“There are ways in which art communicates that other forms of communication don’t reach,” Swan said. “I think a lot about how the statistics that we read about honeybee decline might not have the same impression as seeing one of these pieces [of art].”

Both of Swan’s parents are also artists, which she admitted had a large influence on her own interests in art. Her love of honeybees also began at an early age, but she didn’t take up the practice until close to 10 years ago.

From her nearly decade-long experience caring for her own colonies of bees, she became intimate with some of the major issues honeybees and other important ecosystem pollinators face today. According to the USDA, winter losses for honeybee colonies have been around 25 percent each year for the past eight years.

While Swan recognizes there is not any one issue that is responsible for the decline of the honeybee, she said some of the biggest issues are habitat loss and pesticide use.

Swan has a very personal experience with the dangers of pesticide, where her family was exposed to the pesticide spray from a crop duster flying over her home. She and her daughter got caught outside in the toxic mist of the pesticide, which she thinks led to her daughter’s sickness afterwards.

“I was angry, terrified. I felt so vulnerable,” Swan said. “The experience gave me an insight about all of the creatures people spray all the time that we don’t recognize. They’re beings too and we’re doing this without much thought at all.”

Swan said her goal is not to place blame on anyone for pollinator decline, but rather to promote individuals to think more carefully about how they treat the environment. From her research, she realized it was a “constellation of problems,” rather than a singular issue with a simple solution. The objective of her book was to find people who were creatively coming up with a wide range of solutions.

Through her conversations with blueberry growers in Wisconsin, she came to understand some of the issues crop growers face, who are also dependent on pollinators for their livelihood. She said solutions like planting native flowering plants alongside their fields, have already been adopted on some farms, which was a relatively easy change for growers.

Swan thinks these solutions are small steps in the right direction for growers and honeybees alike. She believes through small, individual actions, stakeholders can collectively make a large difference for the future of honeybees.

“I just think that we can have a much more vibrant, diverse ecosystem if we are just a little bit gentler to the earth and its creatures,” Swan said.