The honeybee [read: feminist] is not only productive*, but is a symbol of cooperation, thrift, diligence, forethought, and healing. It stings only for defense purposes. (Avery, 2011)
I’m a feminist and a beekeeper. Currently, those are two of the most influential perspectives through which I live. I’ve been thinking a lot about the overlap between these two lenses of my life, and I would like to share some of my insights and how I have come to understand their interactions. Sometimes it is easy for me to understand how they go together; other times, I struggle with how deeply they can conflict.
A pronounced example of conflict between these two is the lack of female beekeepers. I am a fortunate, young lady beekeeper as I have, in my short career, been able to interact with some really incredible female beekeepers. Even the older male beekeepers that have mentored me are, in general, of a more feminist persuasion, for which I am grateful. And I assure you, the beekeeping community is transitioning from a bunch of bearded, old white men towards a younger feminist crowd. Now I’m about to say something you might be shocked to find in feminist literature. We need these bearded, old white men. They have a lot of valuable information and experience with bees that is helpful for our basic understanding. However, they (and we) need our feminism to reveal the biases and untruths that are embedded in the patriarchal beekeeping handbooks, but also, more importantly, to discover how to make beekeeping more feminist.
The diversity of the current beekeeping community is highly nuanced and can be difficult to work with at times, but the ultimate goal of bridging the age and gender gaps between beekeepers to form a stronger apiculture community inspires me. I think the most confusing or frustrating aspect of the patriarchal, hierarchal beekeeping society is comparing it to the matriarchal, non-hierarchical bee hive with which beekeeping is concerned.
So, let’s talk about the matriarchy.
Widely, the queen bee is mistakenly believed to be the ruler of a hive of honeybees. While it is true that the other bees attend to the needs of the queen, she does not command the colony. The queen bee has a longer body that contains her eggs; she simply goes about her day laying thousands of eggs. An important and exhausting act, to be sure. Besides the queen bee, there are worker bees, all of which are female. There is a small group of worker bees that support the queen in her egg-laying endeavors (I like to think of them as her midwives and doulas). Worker bees care for everything and everyone in the hive: nursing the young, foraging, building honeycomb, giving their lives (stingin’) to defend the colony, the list goes on. It is the collective voice of these lil’ ladies that makes the decisions. Both bees and feminism are founded in cooperation and to some degree so is (and hopefully even more so in the future) beekeeping.
There is a third type of bee that belongs to honeybee hives: the males. These are referred to as drones, are particularly large and fuzzy, and lack a stinger. They serve the one-time role of fertilizing the thousands of eggs a queen bee will lay in her lifetime. In preparation for winter and the constrained resources that come with the season, the female worker bees kick the male drones out of the hive. I struggle with this aspect of hive organization because at first glance that seems to totally go against the idea of gender equality. Upon further contemplation, I realize the drones are not thrown out in preparation for winter simply because they are male, but rather because they don’t contribute anything other than the genetics embedded in their sperm. Fertilization of a queen generally occurs in the early Spring, and the drones get to hang around consuming honey for six months until Autumn. This all comes down to the principle of reciprocity found in the natural world. By not contributing to the collective good, the drones are unequal from the worker bees. But can they help this? Is nature beyond the scope of feminism?
*The only thing I don’t like about this quote is the “hidden” capitalist message of a critter’s worth being based on their productivity. But that’s for another post.
Avery, G.C. & Bergsteiner, H. 2011. Sustainable Leadership: Honeybee and Locust Approaches. Routledge: New York.
Layout Editor, What the F Magazine