In Our Lovely Deseret

Beekeepers across the country are deeply concerned. Honeybee colonies are failing at unprecedented rates. In the past decades, by most estimates, nearly a third of the North American population of these vital creatures has simply disappeared. Flowering plants—including fruits and vegetables—evolved alongside pollinating animals, chief among them bees. Nearly 3/4 of the worlds plants cannot sexually reproduce without the help of pollinating animals, and 1/3 of the major agricultural crops in the US depend on honeybees for pollination. The systematic failure of the hives (known as Colony Collapse Disorder), has been studied worriedly and extensively in recent years. No single, definitive, monocausal source of the phenomenon has emerged from the research, but it rather appears to be a kind of perfect storm of a wide range of factors, from pesticide use and urbanization to parasites and AIDS-like immuno-compromising viruses. And because no single explanation has been found, no simple solution can be offered for this complex and deeply threatening problem.

The purpose of this post is not to give a detailed account of CCD, its causes, or its solutions. Even this cursory overview does suggest some important lessons—about the relationship between the health of the natural world and the successes or failures of our modern industrial economy; about the importance of understanding evolution and co-evolutionary processes for addressing major ecologico-economic problems; and about our dependence, as an innovative and intelligent species, on natural processes which are beyond our control. But what interests me more is probing the implications of honeybee social ecology with its attendant problems for the stability, vitality, and overall health of a Latter-day Saint community whose foundational metaphor is the Beehive.

Two lessons in particular come to mind: first, the success of the community depends not just on its internal integrity, cooperation, hard work, commitment, and productivity but on the nature of its relationship with the surrounding natural world. In the case of the bees, the relationship with environmental surrounds is one of co-dependence and mutual benefit—bees take from the natural community around them the source of their sustenance, and in return they provide the priceless and necessary service of pollination. The bees derive nourishment from the environment but also contribute to its survival, vitality, and even diversity. It is a mutual relationship of give and take.

The second lesson is that we must be mindful of the potentially unpredictable and devastating effects that industrial modernity, consumer culture, and unrestrained corporate capitalism can have on the integrity of a community. Of course it would be both simplistic and inaccurate to ascribe the damage to honeybee communities solely to the effects of industrial production and capitalist consumption. Yet the complexity of the relationship between the two should not lead us to ignore it all together. There can be no doubt that the self-contained and self-sustaining unity of pioneer-era Deseret was compromised by its forced integration into the social, political, and economic life of the surrounding nation, though whether the results were, on balance, more negative than positive is perhaps an unresolvable question. The metaphor of the beehive should lead us to constantly evaluate and reevaluate our relationships with one another, with our neighbors and neighboring communities, with the natural world, and with a marketplace driven by the imperatives of productive profitability.

On a much more practical level, I’d like to share a suggestion a friend of mine made just yesterday during breakfast at a local restaurant. After hearing about Steve Peck’s successful exploits as an amateur apiarist (about which you will no doubt hear more in weeks and months to come), she wondered aloud what might happen if Mormons raised honeybees on the property of our local houses of worship. The symbolic value (cf. beehive metaphor) goes without saying. But there are also pragmatic benefits. It would be easy—there are enclosed spaces (where we protect our massive satellite dishes), as well as an army of potential volunteer workers (local leadership could call members to serve as ward and/or stake beekeepers). There’s also a nice parallel to some of the productive work traditionally associated with other institutions of deep religious commitment like Catholic monasteries. And the benefits to the local community (producing a useful and valuable resource) as well as the natural environment (the pollination of local plants and gardens) would dovetail nicely with another recent suggestion that ward property be converted into community gardens.

My thoughts here are far from fully developed, but suffice it to say that I’m experiencing renewed enthusiasm for the Mormon Beehive metaphor and for reclaiming it on behalf of a more environmentally aware and socio-ecologically responsible Mormonism.

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16 responses to “In Our Lovely Deseret

  1. Tatiana April 30, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    I think this is a fantastic idea, but how do we handle sting liability? Would that be a potential show-stopper? Can honey be considered an attractive menace? Perhaps as long as the hives are inside a walled enclosure this problem is covered with regards to the general public. Maybe members called as beekeepers could sign a release or something.

    So what happens to the honey? Does it go to the bishop’s storehouse? Or is it sold to benefit the fast-offering fund? Maybe used for ward potlucks? I think it’s a wonderful idea! It has an educational component, an environmental component, a fun component, and a component of much tastiness!

  2. Ashley May 1, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Your two lessons were thought-provoking. A mutual relationship of give and take…I would hope that most Mormon communities find that they are able to give back to the larger community through service and industry, in a way that the members of the outside community are also able to recognize and appreciate their LDS neighbors. Yet, it doesn’t matter how flawless the inner workings of a society are if the negative forces of the environmental surroundings are stronger. And I think this is where the continuity of the metaphor ends—unlike the honey bees, we can choose how much importance and dependency we place on being “of the world”.

    Church-building beekeeping is so out there…yet not really. I think it’s wonderful! We can learn a lot from the bees. Add to Tatiana’s components above a spiritual component as well. What a wonderful way to learn about hard work, cooperation, and the symbols and metaphors used by the early members of the church.

    I got my masters degree in conservation biology. I enjoyed it, but have thought for a long time that if I had it to do over again, I would absolutely study honey bees and CCD. Every time I hear something about that, I get all antsy (no pun intended) and want to do something about it, to understand it better. I always tell my husband that my dream job is to be a beekeeper, so there you go! I will be your ward beekeeper. (Very much looking forward to Steven Peck’s insights and advice on that topic, as it’s something I do want to pursue someday.)

  3. Brad May 1, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Tatiana, I’m not sure about the liability issues. Part of me thinks it would be easy, the risks aren’t any higher than a lot of what we ask Church members to do, from missionary service (proselyting and otherwise) to scouting. But I really don’t know. I particularly love the idea (and was so taken by it when my friend suggested it at breakfast) as part of a larger environmental outreach effort that involves everything from new green building initiatives and sustainable urban planning to community gardens at wardhouses and ward environmental specialists. Ward beekeeping could be a vital part, symbolically and pragmatically, of community building on the ward level.

    Ashley, love the insights. Between Steve’s stories about his urban stealth hive (which you’re right to look forward to hearing about) and the research on CCD I did for this post, beekeeping is acquiring an almost obsessive appeal for me. 🙂

  4. Ashley May 1, 2011 at 1:51 am

    Well, let us know if you ever try it, and how it goes! (You know my husband Jordan…you might remember getting together with us at Lon’s Cookin’ Shack in Provo? Can’t even remember exactly when that was…)

  5. reader Rachel May 1, 2011 at 7:09 am

    While I like the idea, especially the way it dovetails so nicely with the LDS history and ideas of industry, I share Tatiana’s concern about liability. I am a person who has to carry an epipen because of severe allergy to stings. I know that domesticated honey bees are very safe, and that the way people act around bees determines how likely it is that they will get stung. (Proof: I haven’t been stung since 1996.) Perhaps it would be better to have a ward beehive not on church grounds? Then members could go and work, and the kids could learned about bees and safety, but you wouldn’t have to issue a disclaimer anytime you invite someone to the meetinghouse.

  6. JamesM May 1, 2011 at 7:37 am

    Really cool concept. As much as I like the symbolism of church volunteers undertaking this type of thing, two arrangements that might be easier to implement than putting the responsibility on volunteers might be 1) partnering with commercial bee keepers – provide the space to let the professionals do what they do, or 2) tie it into the welfare/employment programs of the church. I know the whole idea is very much in the realm of they hypothetical, but maybe those two approaches could be more hypothetically feasible.

    I’d also throw out the possibility of an LDS-centric (i.e. not officially sponsored or affiliated) non-profit organization taking this up grass-roots style. Extend participation beyond non-LDS circles…would probably generate more good will in the community than trying to run it through a church-sanctioned program.

  7. the Damsel in Dis Dress May 1, 2011 at 8:02 am

    I love the church bees idea. I wonder if the Church has bees on any of its welfare property…it’s so extensive, I bet it does. Perhaps that could be expanded, and the remote locations would be less of a liability issue.

  8. Nicole May 1, 2011 at 9:55 am

    This is a wonderful idea and placing them inside the satellite enclosure is genius. They disperse so quickly that I doubt there would be a fear, even from people who are allergic. Plus there is always another entrance to the building.

    Bees are a lot of work, particularly in summer. We maintained 2-3 hives (in the city for that matter) for about a decade growing up and, if I recall, about two weekend days per month during the summer had to be devoted to upkeep. In my young child’s eyes, I just seem to remember honeycomb everywhere in the garage. Is it as much work as I remember?

  9. Mary Cate Bassett May 1, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Two thumbs up! I began keeping bees 3 years ago, and am keeping them in “Top Bar Hives”. (Google it, fascinating stuff!) My brother-in-law got into beekeeping soon after and has been ON FIRE! He has gotten so many people into bees and is making a nice side income removing behives from building walls.

    Ever since getting into bees, I’ve felt that beekeeping is the perfect thing for Mormons! It has long been our symbol, it fosters self-reliance, preparedness, and it has certain intangible spiritual blessings associated with it that you just have to experience for yourself. There is a certain submissiveness in putting yourself at the mercy of tens of thousands of tiny flying creatures that can cause you lasting pain and discomfort if you offend them.

  10. Brad May 1, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    I remember, Ashley. Hope you guys are doing well (you landed at UCSD, right?).

  11. mfranti May 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    This is a great idea, Brad. I could totally get on board.

    Now, how does something like this get started?

  12. Fran May 1, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    I think the idea of beekeeping as Church callings and all, is fantastic. However, I have this feeling that this would never fly in reality because of liability reasons. I might be wrong, but I could just see leadership being really concerned about what happened if someone did something stupid, making the bees mad, and getting stung to death or whatever, people having allergic reactions to bee stings, YM throwing rocks into the beehives…yadayadayada. That kind of stuff makes me think they would never go for having beehives around Church buildings. I think it’d be fantastic though if this could be somehow integrated into the welfare program somehow and set up in a way where liability is not as much of an issue. People could still get called – kind of like you can get called to be a service missionary etc.

  13. TopHat May 1, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Ok. I’m getting more convinced we need to get bees after our move this month. 🙂

  14. nat kelly May 2, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I love the analogy, Brad. Our modern process of extraction and exploitation is destroying life that we can’t even see clearly. Thanks for highlighting both its physical and spiritual side effects.

  15. missy. May 6, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    Brad- The other day I was stretching on the grass after a run, and a crazy bee hung out with me for a solid 10 minutes. S/he was perfectly friendly, just hovering in front of my face, then flitting away, then coming back again. I’ve always been afraid of bees, but I had your post in my mind and it helped me to see the bee as a companion rather than an assailant. It actually ended up being a really nice experience, so thanks for your role in that 🙂

  16. Aaron R. May 9, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Brad, this is rally excellent. We have not got a ward community garden yet, but someone has donated a small plot of land for the youth to use to grow vegetables in the hope that we can use them as a mini-Bishops storehouse. We started digging the ground over the other day.

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