Lesson from the Hive: An Interview with 'Bee Time' Author Mark Winston

In this Banyen interview Mark Winston, author of Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, winner of the 2015 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction, talks about the fascinating world of bees. Mark Winston will offer a Free Public Talk & Book Signing at Banyen on Thursday, September 22.


Banyen: How did you get interested in bees?

Mark Winston: I had spent some time as a research assistant for a professor studying wasps in Mexico, and decided I wanted to be a tropical entomologist. My self-image was me, in the jungle, wearing khakis and jungle boots, emulating the 19th century naturalists who described what to them was a new world. I was accepted at the University of Kansas Entomology Department, which had a reputation for sending students down to the tropics for research, and my supervisor had coincidentally just received a grant to study killer bees in South America. I heard "South America," thought bees would do just fine, and 9 months later found myself opening a colony of african honeybees in French Guiana, pretty much my first experience with honeybees. Oddly, it felt like coming home, and I've been deeply immersed in bees ever since. Oh, and the tropical biologist part? Lived the dream for about five years, but then was quite happy to settle in Canada!

Banyen: In studying and understanding bees, what have you found to be the most interesting and mysterious aspects of them?

Mark Winston: Many things, but perhaps most profoundly is their ability to communicate. Bees use many channels we know of, including smell, taste, sound, vibration, the earth's magnetic field, electric fields, and likely many we don't. Whatever the channels, what stands out is how intently bees listen to each other, and are aware of the environment around them, both inside the hive and in the field outside. They have achieved a state of being present that we all strive for.

Banyen: In your extensive studies and observations of bees, have you observed anything that would suggest that bees have complex emotions like love, grief, etc.?

Mark Winston: No, I think it would be projecting human emotions on to bees to suggest they feel love, or grief, or other complex emotions. We simply don't know what a bee feels, and can only observe how it reacts. Does a bee defending its nest by stinging an attacker feel fear, or is motivated by love of country (hive)? It's just unknowable . . .

Banyen: What are the biggest misunderstandings people have in relation to bees?

Mark Winston
: People often confuse bees and wasps. Bees evolved well over 100 million years ago, likely from a wasp ancestor, but are quite different. Bees are hairy to collect pollen, and feed only on nectar and pollen from flowers, whereas wasps are not hairy, and have a wide array of feeding styles, including predation, scavenging, parasitism and some wasp species still do eat pollen from flowers.

Banyen: Can you tell us a little bit about the role that bees play in our ecosystem, and the effect of wide-scale monoculture farming on bees and the

Mark Winston: Bees, both managed and wild, are crucial to natural and agricultural ecosystems. Without bees as pollinators, roughly 1/3 of our food would diminish or disappear, and vast terrestrial ecosystems would cease to exist. Monoculture farming is one of the most serious threats to bees, in diminishing the diversity of pollen that bees require for protein. That's been one impact of genetically modified crops, some of which are highly effective at weed control but eliminate the food from weeds that keeps bees healthy. Reducing pesticide use and increasing crop diversity are two key factors that would improve the health of bees, among other benefits.

Banyen: What can we learn from them? What are some of the main things that bees have to teach us?

Mark Winston: So much! Bees are connected to their environment in a mutualistic way; flowers require bees and bees require flowers, and that simple relationship is one we would be well served to emulate in our interactions with the world around us. Also, bees are highly collaborative, submerging their individual needs in favour of the colony, and I have been deeply influenced by understanding how valuing the communal enhances our human societies.

Banyen: Mark Winston, thank you for taking the time with us today. We look forward to seeing you at your talk at Banyen on Thursday, September 22.

Mark Winston is recognized as one of the world’s leading expert on bees and pollination. He directed Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue for 12 years, where he achieved wide recognition as a distinguished Canadian educator. He consults widely, in university, corporate, non-profit, government and community settings. He is the author of the bestselling book Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive, winner of the 2015 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction. His website is winstonhive.com.

Interview © September 7, 2016 Banyen Books & Sound