Where are the Bees Now?

Exploring Loss in an Age of Extinction

We are living in an age of loss: the sixth mass extinction. Following this year's shocking report that the planet has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, and the 2018 Remembrance Day for Lost Species, we bring you 'The Vanishing'. In this new section, we seek responses not only to extinction – the deaths of entire species – but to the quieter extirpations, losses and disappearances that are steadily stripping our world of its complexity and beauty. How do we, as writers and artists, stay human during such times?

Today Rosamund Portus explores an artistic response to one of the gravest losses of our time: the decline of bee populations.

Rosamund is a PhD student at the University of York. Her research is based in the environmental humanities, and studies how people are using creative practices to narrate, discuss, experience, challenge and potentially resist the decline of bees. She is also a practicing artist, specialising in portraiture work.
I cannot say for sure when my captivation with bees first started. Perhaps it began with the many hours I spent in my garden as a child, or with my love of the creamy golden substance I would spread on my toast, or the weekends I spent as an adolescent reading and re-reading The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd – which, of course, led to a dispute about whether I might be allowed to keep bees in the garden. When I chose the topic of bees for an undergraduate essay, I had no idea that this small piece of research would eventually drive me to undertake a PhD that studied the decline of bee populations. But as I began my journey into the world of bees, and started to gauge the extent of the threats that different bee species face, I became increasingly motivated to take my studies further. Today, even as my research leads me to engage with different environmental themes and ideas, bees are always at the heart of my work.

Whenever I have sought re-inspiration, I have found myself returning to a quote written by the anthropologist and insect expert Hugh Raffles: ‘Where are the bees now? Collapsing in their colonies, gliding through their plastic mazes, sniffing out explosives, sucking up that sugar water, getting fat and weak on corn syrup, locked in little boxes at airports, sticking out their tongues on cue’. On a summer’s day we still expect to see bees buzzing around flowers, still expect to jump away from the threat of their sting. Across the globe they are still dutifully carrying out their daily tasks, painstakingly gathering nectar, building their homes, laying their eggs. Honeybees are still diligently churning nectar into the precious substance of honey, still producing enough that we might delve into their sweet sticky worlds and strip the frames of their labour.

Yet, in many ways they have also already gone. The threat of extinction hangs over their nests and hives, attaching itself to their bodies through the pesticides that cling to them, clogging up their intestines through the sugary substances they feed on, weakening their immune systems through the sucking of parasitic diseases. The effects of climate change have disrupted the interrelationship between plant and pollinator, starving bees of their floral food. Human-led experiments have left worker honeybees with shorter lives and more docile natures. The social and biological natures of bees has become infected through human endeavour. Each year wild bee populations shrink, and beekeepers report mass die-offs in their hives.

Detail from Hive Piano

As more and more species become endangered, extinction now clings to the living; it is no longer a process that is predominantly associated with species that have already been lost, whose remains we might only find pickled in jars at labs, pinned in glass cabinets at museums or examined in natural history books. This is undoubtedly true for bees.

Despite their undisputed role in the lives of all living creatures, bees are no exception to the threat. Pick up almost any recent text on bees, whether fictional, academic or journalistic, and there will inevitably be a reference to their ongoing decline and disappearance. Due to the myriad ways in which bees have had their ability to survive, indeed thrive, destroyed, they have come to be known and defined by extinction. Subsequently, we have begun to narrate, imagine and mourn for bees before their extinction has actually come to pass. By preemptively imagining and lamenting their potential loss we might also begin to gauge the material, cultural and emotional impacts of their loss upon the world, thereby challenging their decline.

As I started my research into responses to the decline of bees, I found that one way that people are engaging with their potential extinction is through creative practice. I came to learn of an astounding number of artists who have found inspiration in bees: from performers to printmakers to novelists. Walk into almost any high street bookshop and you will likely stumble upon Maja Lunde’s novel The History of Bees, which explores the stories of three individuals whose lives are interwoven with the eventual loss of bee species. By setting each individual’s story within a different time period, specifically the years 1852, 2007 and 2098, Lunde draws connections between our past and current behaviours, and a near future in which bees have disappeared, seemingly for good.

As more and more species become endangered, extinction now clings to the living … we have begun to narrate, imagine and mourn for bees before their extinction has actually come to pass.

One artist challenging the extinction of bees is sound artist and composer Lily Hunter Green. Lily’s journey into their world began on a sunny day in 2014, when she was sitting at a piano. As she was playing, quite unexpectedly, a bee flew into the body of her piano. Lily describes how the sound of the bee’s buzzing was suddenly elevated, becoming big and beautiful. This act of the bee entering the piano became an act that Lily would come to echo through her practice; Lily first started to incorporate bees into her work when she worked with a trained beekeeper to attach a hive to the side of a piano, requiring honeybees to enter through the body of the piano to access the entrance of the hive. The creation of this hive piano would lead her to producing a composition that is inspired directly from recordings of the hive piano.

This composition, called Bee Composed, was based on the sounds that Lily could hear in the hive. More specifically, the piece she created draws on the notes that the honeybees collectively buzzed in, as well as the sounds of the bees themselves. Lily exhibited her work by setting up a second old piano in a gallery’s garden, which she also helped plant with bee-friendly flowers. With the help of a sculpture artist she then attached some geodesic domes to the side of the second piano, and set up a live projection feed of the bees inside the hive piano. By having this live feed playing in the domes, as well as the music of the composed piece, the exhibition gave people a chance to take a glimpse into the complex social world of honeybees, whilst not requiring the honeybees to be in any danger.


Before her encounter with the bee that flew into her piano, Lily had some basic idea of the threats that bee populations faced, but did not feel that she had fully processed the severity of the situation. Yet, as she began her research into the world of bees the focus of the project, and the narratives surrounding it, quickly became all about raising awareness about the decline of bee populations. Lily discussed how impenetrable and inaccessible scientific data on the bee decline can be, and how it is deeply important to make information about the decline visible, accessible and personally relevant. There needs to be someone who can tell the story, inviting and helping others to imagine extinction. But Lily’s work is not only imagining the extinction of bees. It is also inviting others to connect to the wonder of bees, learning about the significant role they play in the world and understanding why their loss matters; her work offers people a platform through which to engage with dialogues of grief for a loss that has yet to come. ‘I am trying to find the things that connect with humans in order to create an empathy towards the subject’ she told me. At the heart of Lily’s work is a desire to help people emotionally and personally resonate with an issue that may have previously felt disconnected from their own realities or even beyond their scope of knowledge.

Lily went on to develop her work in a variety of different directions. A live performance, Bee Composed Live, with a violinist and a performance troupe and an exhibition called Tuning In that examined the industry of hand pollination, exploring how piano tuning forks are used to artificially imitate the vibration of bumblebees. Most recently she was working on a collaborative project with two molecular biologists and a computer scientist. Together, they created a digital depiction of a honeycomb infected with a virus that is threatening honeybees.

Detail from Hive Piano

‘Where are the bees now?’ asked Hugh Raffles. They have become defined by loss and suffering. Many of their bodies have become broken and weakened. Their extinction is no longer confined to fictional apocalyptic-like tales, but is an increasing reality. Yet, despite all of this, bees are fundamentally still here; their extinction is still a story that has only become true in our imaginations. Therefore, through imagining their extinction we have a far greater chance of now resisting it. Thom van Dooren, a prominent writer on extinction, believes that the time has come to go beyond only asking how humans are implicated in stories of extinction, but also how we will respond to the calls of responsibility that extinction places on us. Creative responses to extinction processes helps make these stories of loss visible and relevant, thus responding to the call of responsibility that human driven extinction demands of us.



Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

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