I am thrilled to have received the A Focus on Nature Environmental History Award for my dissertation on the 'Environmental History of Bees in Britain'. I have always had a profound love for nature since growing up in the British countryside, and so I am delighted that my passions for the environment and for writing have been recognised by the University of Nottingham. Although my undergraduate study is officially in History and French I was able to combine my interests when I took the Environmental History module. As any environmentalist should, and indeed any citizen-conservationist, I studied the ecological foundations of Aldo Leopold’s ‘land ethic’ outlined in A Sand County Almanac (1949) and read into Rachel Carson’s arguments against intensive pesticide use in Silent Spring (1962). As such, I came to appreciate more deeply the interrelations of the natural world and the detrimental effects of human activity on our environment.
While on my year in France, my growing concerns about our impact on the biotic community led me to join Greenpeace Poitiers on various leaflet distributions encouraging a sustainable agriculture and fish farming. It became clear that the environment was a language we could all understand.
Recognising the power of the campaign, I jumped at the opportunity to join the Bee Cause with Friends of the Earth when I returned to the UK. In recent years, bees have become a hugely discussed topic since fears of declining populations of honey bees, solitary bees and other wild pollinators have threatened the fundamental ecology of our planet. The campaign, therefore, sought to inspire the public to support the ban of bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides, provide alternative solutions for farmers, and offer easy remedies for promoting improved bee health at home and in the garden.
Bees became my obsession. It seemed to me that the controversy surrounding the use of neonicotinoid pesticides was the modern example of the use of DDT that Rachel Carson campaigned against in the 1960s. And the more I became involved in the campaign, the more I realised we were repeating history, almost word for word.
My dissertation was born.
A Modern Environmental History of Bees in Britain explores the dynamic relationship between humans and bees from the nineteenth century up to the present day in an attempt to shed light on the conservational lessons we can learn from our shared past. In the face of combined stressors on bees outlined by Professor Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex, the species’ history illuminates how the human enjoyment of the insect led numbers into a state of crisis. Now, after national campaigns and the successful ban of neonicotinoid pesticides across Europe, it can appear bee populations are on the road to recovery. However, it is not without a lesson in history that we have come to this conclusion.
Drawing on existent histories of writers including Hattie Ellis, Claire Preston and Bee Wilson, alongside archival documents and journals from the British Beekeepers Association, the first chapter approaches the human enjoyment of honey bees through the craft of beekeeping. As our growing scientific understanding has filled in the gaps of pollination research and honey bee behaviour, our instinct for innovation has developed the hive correspondingly. Moreover, with the rise of expert beekeeping awards, National Honey Shows, Bee Diseases acts and war time concessions, it becomes clear that the craft of beekeeping protruded into the far corners of British society in education, leisure and politics.
However, despite the developed admiration of bee society throughout history, the second
chapter creates parallels between post-war and contemporary events in order to comprehend how in spite of historic forewarning, bees are in an apparent state of crisis.
Using examples of the mechanisation of modern-day beekeeping, the reminiscence of the DDT and neonicotinoid debates, and the agricultural pressures on the British countryside, this section reveals the historic ironies embedded within the story of humans and bees. Notable precautions from philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1923, biologist Rachel Carson in 1962, and environmentalist and author Marion Shoard in the 1980s remind us of the consistent warning sirens of the harmful effects of human activity on nature. Yet despite these historic cries of concern, writer and bee enthusiast Hattie Ellis in 2014 repeats that the current state of bee populations are disquiet for environmental distress. In light of a ‘pollination crisis’, it is abundantly clear we should be listening to the bees.
The final chapter evaluates our evolving ecological awareness through the literary descriptions of bees in accounts by Charles Darwin and the poet Maurice Maeterlinck. From Darwin’s conclusions of the ascendency of evolution equating bee and human ontology, to the romantic portrayals fostered by Maeterlinck, great value is awarded to the bee in recognition of the natural world we share. Born from a developed ecological understanding advocated by our environmental and literary icons, invertebrate conservation has become better integrated into public and governmental concerns. Organisations such as Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust encourage action and education with habitat creation projects such as B-Lines and awareness weeks such as Bees’ Needs Week (9-15 July 2018). There is hope for a brighter future for bee populations.
Ultimately, I hope this thesis is a history for the future. A way of looking back to look forward. The bees are a symbol of environmental health. They are telling us something, and we should listen.
It’s easy to help out bees at home. For example, here are some easy tips to attract more bees your garden: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/garden-advice/.
Lauren is a University of Nottingham graduate. Her outdoor life in the British countryside led her to a university life of Environmental History. After campaigning with Friends of the Earth on the Bee Cause and witnessing the successful ban of bee-harming pesticides, Lauren was inspired to write environmental success stories. Take a look at her other articles here: http://www.ourpositiveplanet.com/author/lauren/.