Honey can flow in landscapes with dismal histories. But what futures are forecast in the honey’s waning from the wilds?
Note: This is the second of a two-part publication about beekeeping, conflict, and the environment. The first part can be read here.
Since the 1990s Bosnian war ended, prickly native shrubbery and invasive species have rewilded former frontlines and the abandoned countryside. Inadvertently, the disaster has fostered nooks of biodiversity, flourishing in ecological niches and microclimates.
Underdevelopment also minimised land use and agrochemicals — two major stressors on pollinators worldwide. On the nearly ideal forage fronts, however, local impacts of climate change are fast becoming apparent. Honey is getting ever harder to find.
“My wife and I are at war over bees,” Imam Hasim says. This soft-spoken beekeeper complained playfully to the anthropologist as his wife poured us delicate cups of Turkish coffee. “He squanders all the money on bees,” the wife finally says, her irritation giving way to a more playful tone.
Their house was walking distance from the frontlines of the town of Sapna, which fiercely resisted the Chetnik — the Serb Republic army — offensives in eastern Bosnia throughout the war. Imam Hasim led prayers in the trenches and tended to the funerals and other rites. His wife nursed the wounded and fed soldiers, though food was scarce. It seemed puzzling that this woman, known to be so generous, now objected to her husband’s devotion to apiculture.
Since the war, Hasim’s passion for bees has turned many Sapna residents into beekeepers. Early in May, they used to move their bees eastwards to the warmer banks of Drina River, on the border with the Serb Republic, the other entity of the Bosnian state. New forests of black locust bloomed there early, in pearl-white clusters.
There, curled florets safeguard nectar from spring showers and supply hives with surpluses for bees to store and beekeepers to harvest. Retreating to the Sapna hills, the local beekeepers would catch black locust opening later at the higher altitude. Fragrant linden forests were up next, promising intense, amber-hued honey, while meadows and a windfall of honeydew rounded up the season.
But since the last decade, the weather has become unbound from the seasons. Plants are weathering rapid-fire shifts in air and soil temperatures. Atypical precipitation causes droughts or floods while freeze-thaw cycles spiral into late spring. Beekeepers’ records show in detail how deeply the unseasonal weather affects bees and plant life.
Honeybees are often on the verge of starvation. Emergency feeding, hive medicine and maintenance are making small apiculture economically unsustainable. It is these rising costs that the imam’s wife was accounting for.
All the more reason to carry on with beekeeping, apiarists like Hasim think. “Bees are a gift from Allah,” the imam tells me in 2017. “They are inspired by God and their inspiration should teach us lessons. But, sadly, what do we learn? We are devastating the bees without realising that by ruining them we are ruining ourselves.”
Hasim was referring to the vital role that bees play in pollinating 80 percent of flowering plants that make Earth marvellous and life-friendly. But the imam was probing deeper into the integral relationships between divinely inspired bees and our own species that constitute an Islamic meaning of being a human. “But what is a human, these days?” Hasim wonders aloud, as the anthropologist makes pensive notes.
Hasim used the Arabic insān and left the question open and daunting. In doing so, he signalled the meaning of the human as a life-long becoming. Living a human life, in the Quranic sense the imam presumed, is living within the world of relationships: with the earth and heavens and between all the earthbound, nonhuman ummah — communities like yourselves.
The relationships are material, reaping benefits for humans. However, because being human is a metaphysical process, these relationships presume responses and responsibilities. A human can approach them as gifts — take and give back graciously — or can slight, plunder, or poison the offerings. Whatever humans do, in turn, makes and, potentially, undoes them.
To live by revelation, unswervingly, like a bee, is to be a gift: A mercy to the worlds. This species keeps the planet lush and joyous. The insect makes substances that are biologically inimitable, therapeutically promising, and thrilling in taste.
Too often we speak of animal instincts reductively, as “uncreative,” something done by default. On the second look, it is the modern human responses that can turn uninspired and uncreative.
The emergency food we give bees — sugar and pollen substitutes — are inadequate to ensure their health, immunity, or longevity. Worse still, the modern lifeways cannot even ensure that bees and other species live in peace.
The havoc wreaked on the natural world is becoming loudly obvious and is just as rapidly covered up by the clamour of resourceful responses: risk planning, mitigation, or climate finance. These optimistic responses maintain, single-mindedly, the disastrous relations with nonhumans. Such resourcefulness, however, has urgent limits, because the planet is finite and the biosphere is undergoing irreversible damage. At the same time, the injury done to the inner human becoming is more subtle, easier to miss, and — Islamic revelation teaches — infinitely tragic.
In the present that has been rightly described as “catastrophic,” it is not just the lack of political will nor the intransigent carbon economies that are driving the Earth to ruin. At fault is also a poverty of late modern imagination. Local beekeeping points to an eco-practice grounded in metaphysical contemplations.
Honeybees are defined by honey: pure sweetness and inspiration. Humans, ultimately, become defined by their deeds. To taste the honey, properly, to savour its flavorful body along with the richness of its meanings, would itself be revelatory. What ominous notes could we taste in honey’s vanishing?
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