The Beekeeper's Pupil

Sara George’s historical novel, “The Beekeeper’s Pupil,” is the story of the remarkable relationship between the blind naturalist Francois Huber, and his manservant and ‘eyes’, Francois Brunens,  as they investigate the behavior of the honeybee against the backdrop of the Scientific and French Revolutions. 


The story is presented as the fictionalized diary of the latter from the date of his appointment in 1785 to his departure from the household nine years later.  On October 10, 1789, the entry reads in part, “We feel as though we’re living in uncertain times, as though what has always seemed the natural order is beginning to turn upside down.   The Paris mob dictating to the King of France.  It would have seemed unthinkable even a week ago.”


In the study of Group Dynamics there is a concept called the Groan Zone.   In essence it says that an essential part of the creative process is the ability to let go of preconceived notions and expected outcomes and to be truly open and available to the possibilities based on the questions asked and the data available.   It is uncomfortable – one has to set aside one’s comfort zones and agendas – hence the term Groan Zone.  It’s proponents argue that despite the discomfort it is important to stay present, to stay involved, until a new paradigm emerges from what feels like chaos. 


It seems ironic, for example, that the turmoil of the late C18th in both American and France is now called ‘The Enlightenment.” 


Today there is an argument that the world, rather than any one single country,  is in a state of transition which is both a threat and an opportunity that occurs remarkable rarely.  There is a sense that the global economic system is not working, the political system is no longer democratic or representative, society is dysfunctional and  even religious systems are honored more in word than in action. These systems worked well once upon a time but today they are corrupt and broken. We find witness in the Arab Spring, the economic plight in Europe, the political debate in the US, the on-going turmoil in much of Africa, the drug wars of Mexico….  


A significant percentage of the population yearns for security, for a return to the perceived stability and comforts of the past, for the predictability and security of the known with an emphasis on what worked best in earlier times.  I use the word ‘perceived’ because it is easy to romanticize both the past and the future.


 Such yearnings are understandable and very human.


There are others who see this as an opportunity.   They argue these systems worked before but times have changed, and rather than try to resurrect them we need to let go of preconceived notions and expected outcomes and avail ourselves of new possibilities.


This too  is an understandable and human condition.   


Perhaps we are in a global groan zone,  the  dichotomy and tension of which is uncomfortable but vitally important whatever the result.  How felicitous that Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream”, which for me symbolizes the intense feelings and tensions that preceded the First World War, sold recently for $120 million, the most every paid for a single painting, and is on display in the US. 


Honey bees have a role to play as we navigate these tricky waters. Thomas Seeley defines a ‘smart swarm’ as “A group of individuals who respond to one another and to their environment in ways that give them power, as a group, to cope with uncertainty, complexity and change.”  He seems to be describing more than just honey bees. 


“It is from controlled messiness that the wisdom of the hive emerges”  writes Peter Miller in his book,  “Smart Swarm,” which includes fish, birds and ants together with honey bees. 


With increased frequency bees are referred to as our ‘canaries in the coal mine.’ To counteract the lack of ventilation in early coal mines, miners would routinely bring a caged canary into new coal seams. Canaries are especially sensitive to carbon monoxide which made them ideal for detecting dangerous increases in gas levels. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary signaled an immediate evacuation.


Life for the unfortunate canary can be described in three words, "short but meaningful,” and the implication is that the current difficulties experienced by honey bees are symptomatic of an increasingly  toxic environment.  But unlike the miners we cannot ‘immediately evacuate’ our environs when the bees diminish. 


The bees also offer us solutions.  One of the reasons Thomas Seeley’s latest book, “Honey Bee Democracy,” is appealing is that he draws lessons for effective group behavior from the way honey bees make decisions when swarming – decisions made under pressure that are vital to the survival of the colony - and if there is any validity to the argument outlined above, decisions that might be  vital for the future quality of life as we know it. 


For example, how would the current debate in this country change if, like the bees, we could 

put our egos aside;

check the accuracy of information for ourselves;

utilize the power of positive feedback;

value diversity in terms of effective decision making;

debate respectfully in an atmosphere of open enquiry;

champion fresh ideas? 


Environmentalist Bill McKibben suggests the solution lies in working with nature rather than against it.  “Past a certain point, we can’t make nature conform to our industrial model. The collapse of beehives is a warning – and the cleverness of a few beekeepers in figuring out how to work with bees not as masters but as partners offers a clear-eyed kind of hope for many of our (ecological) dilemmas.”

Partnership rather than opposition, cooperation rather than competition, and above all a focus on the long term survival and quality of our community, qualities that most of us exercise really well at our local beekeeper meetings, are perhaps the ways to navigate through the larger Groan Zone.  


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my