# THE FUNAMBULIST PAPERS 60 /// Bee Workers and the Expanding Edges of Capitalism by Renisa Mawani



Today, I publish the 60th Funambulist Paper (23rd of the second series that will be published in the Second Volume by Punctum Books), written by Renisa Mawani (listen on Archipelago: “The Archive: Fragments and Forces of Indigeneity“). In “Bee Workers and the Expanding Edges of Capitalism,” she reminds us that questions of corporeal politics extend the human realm. Capitalist logic are also at work on the bees’ bodies and through their economic and military labor. Precariousness is very much part of the exploitative scheme here, the gradient extinction of bees species having tremendous consequences on entire ecosystems. Renisa proposes a Marxian reading of the bee labor, thus offering a new reading of the Capital for non-human considerations.

THE FUNAMBULIST PAPERS 60 /// Bee Workers and the Expanding Edges of Capitalism

By Renisa Mawani

In the past year, newspapers in the United Kingdom (UK) have reported new exigencies emerging from commercial and public responses to the global decline in honeybees. To offset the devastating effects of colony collapse disorder (CCD), many British residents have turned to beekeeping as a national, global, and environmental responsibility. Despite good intentions, the “boom in bee keeping,” writes the Daily Mail, “may be doing our countryside more harm than good.” A “surge in the number of bumblebee hives means thousands of colonies are being imported” from elsewhere in Europe, and “many of these are riddled with parasites that pose a threat to native species.[1]” A study of 48 colonies brought to the UK from European suppliers has revealed high rates of contamination: 77% were infected by parasites harmful to indigenous bee species in the region. Given recent warnings of the long-term effects of CCD, particularly on agriculture and global food production, the government has been listening attentively. Effective 1 January 2015, non-native bee species will only be used “as an emergency measure if native bees cannot be found.[2]” In the coming year, “foreign worker bees will be banned from getting jobs pollinating crops when there are millions of redundant British workers.[3]” This law is the most recent addition to a series of UK security regulations – including specified “Border Inspection Points” and required health certificates – aimed at restricting the entry of foreign bees.[4]

It is tempting to read “foreign worker bees” and their “threat to native species” as allegories for global racial politics, clearly manifested in historical and contemporary forms of settler colonialism and most vividly in the geopolitics of migration. Fears of foreigners as diseased bodies and concerns over white labor have a long and well-documented history. Since the latter decades of the nineteenth century, both have justified the exclusion of Asian migrants to Canada, the US, and Australia.[5] More recently, the militarization of land and sea, intensifying regimes of state violence directed at detainees and deportees, and the detention and death of migrants in the border zones of Canada, the US, Australia, the UK, and elsewhere make it difficult to resist anthropomorphizing “foreign bees.” Like humans, the foreignness ascribed to bees, we might say, is always racial: the inclusion of some and the expulsion, exclusion, and death of others.

As compelling as such readings are in highlighting racial and cross-species border control, this essay seeks to offer a different reading. Concerns over foreign bees in the UK reflect the urgent global necessity of the bee as worker.[6] Bees have acquired a reputation as “model ‘modern’ industrial workers.[7]” They are industrious, cooperative, attentive to the hive’s division of labor, and acquiescent of their place within it. However, as pollinators, wartime companions, and architects, bees no longer serve as models of human behavior alone. They now perform a variety of jobs vital to national and global economies, as evidenced in food production, national security, and technology. Indeed, the “busy bee,” despite its decline, has become integral to the future of human life, as we know it.

The bee worker – as individual and aggregate – has received considerable attention in literature and philosophy. The bee’s productivity, the cooperative and collective properties of bee labor, and the reticular organization of the hive have long been a source of inspiration and admiration. “For so work the honey-bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom,” wrote Shakespeare.[8] The bee has been idealized as an aspiration for human labor, sociality, and politics. Yet, it is only with the projected crisis of colony collapse disorder – its threats to bees and bee products, to commercial profits and human diets – that we have come to notice bees as workers. Only recently has the bee’s significance to human life and death become palpable.

In this essay, I begin with the bee as worker to ask two related questions: First, what does it mean to think and write from the body of the bee? Second, what does the bee’s body – as a laboring body – tell us about the mutability and adaptability of capitalism’s destructive forces? The interdependence of bee and human life and death, I contend, may have much to say on the expanding horizons of contemporary capitalism. However, these entanglements demand a different set of analytic tools.[9] One strategy, as I suggest below, includes a (re)turn to Marx and Engels, a (re)reading that turns from historical materialism to the materiality and interrelationality of human-nature exchange.

Bee Power ///

One need only read the New York Times, Nature, or other popular periodicals to note that bees have become highly newsworthy. Notwithstanding their projected vulnerability (or perhaps, because of it), bees regularly appear at the forefront of human advancement, particularly in the fields of technology and security.[10] Recent headlines in Popular Science refer to “European bee sperm bank[s],” “bee-inspired algorithms,” bees as “bio-detectives,” and bees that can “solve hard computer problems faster than supercomputers.[11]” Bees, we might say, are the (endangered) future.

Since 2006, scientists, entomologists and beekeepers have reported a mysterious decline in bee populations. The causes remain disputed. Whereas some have attributed bee deaths to changing environmental conditions, pathogens and parasites, others have argued that declining bee populations can be traced directly to neonicotinoids, a chemical insecticide used to kill crop-damaging pests in Europe, Canada, the US, and elsewhere. The irony is difficult to miss. Chemical agents used to protect crops from insects have the unintended consequence of killing bees that pollinate. Efforts to preserve the vitality of certain crops will lead to their eventual demise. The use of neonicotinoids, it is predicted, will result in the disappearance of crops that depend largely or entirely on bee pollination (almonds, apples, blueberries, cranberries). Colony collapse disorder will affect the availability of certain foods, which in turn will alter western diets. Farmers and governments are especially concerned with the high financial costs at stake. Of the “100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee pollinated.[12]” In the US alone, the value of bee-pollinated crops is estimated to be $15 billion dollars per year.[13]

Although the link between insecticides and bee deaths remains disputed, escalating concerns of global ecological crises have generated swift juridical responses. New laws have been passed. Whereas the UK has prohibited the entry of foreign bees, local governments in Canada have passed by-laws to regulate non-commercial beekeeping. Others, including the US, are deliberating whether to prohibit the use of chemical insecticides. In 2013, the European Union agreed to ban three neonicotinoids for a two-year period. But the life of bees is not only what motivates legal action. In Canada, two of Ontario’s largest honey producers have filed a class action lawsuit against Bayer and Sygenta, companies that manufacture neonicotinoids. The lawsuit is concerned with saving bees only insofar as their longevity protects commercial profits. “Beekeepers have suffered, and will continue to suffer devastating economic hardships as a result of the continued used of Neonicotinoids,” reads their statement of claim.[14] Canadian beekeepers are seeking damages of more than $400 million dollars.

From the 1960s onwards, employment repertoires for bee workers have expanded. Bees and other insects have drawn considerable interest and attention from scientists, the United Nations, and from American and Israeli military personnel. They have become workers, models, and prototypes to advance technologies of war. This is not entirely new. Insects, writes Jake Kosek, “have long been recruited and bred for military purposes.”  Today, the honeybee is newly “enlisted in novel modes of material production in war.[15]” Easily trainable. Sniffing explosives. Protecting soldiers. Defending western life. Bees have become central to military futures. The US Military has harnessed the long-admired properties of bees – their adaptability, industriousness, and cooperation – to assist in the detection of land mines and to advance other military projects. Expanding from military agendas, bee workers are now infiltrating civilian spaces. A UK biotechnology firm is using bees to locate explosives. In German airports, bees are mobilized to test air quality.[16] Bees may not yet inhabit the frontlines of war, but that future might be nearer than we think.

The juxtaposition between colony collapse disorder and the militarization of bees suggests that bee workers are valued as living and dying. While their longevity is central to pollination and to the future of crop-production, their expendability is what makes them so vital to military operations.[17] The bee body is one that is clearly valued. Yet, it is not an agent comparable to other nonhuman animals. Through exploitation and appropriation, the bee has been mobilized to maximize the potential of human life. Notwithstanding our concerns over the death of bees, the bee body remains exploitable, killable, and disposable in ways unimaginable for most other life forms.

To date, US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have relied primarily on canines for detection of landmines and explosives, and for surveillance. According to recent reports, dogs in the field suffer from high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder. “Like humans,” writes the New York Times, “different dogs show different symptoms” of PTSD. “Some become hyper-vigilant. Others avoid buildings or work areas that they had previously been comfortable in. Some undergo sharp changes in temperament, becoming unusually aggressive with their handlers, or clingy and timid. Most crucially, many stop doing the tasks they were trained to perform.[18]” Although the prevalence of PTSD among canines is still being debated, these reports have renewed discussions on the ethics of using dogs in war. Bees may offer a viable alternative. Their heightened sense of smell is easy to train. They are air-bound and will not set off explosives. Perhaps most importantly, we cannot relate to bees as we can to dogs. The death of bees does not incite the same ethical crisis over loss of life.

Bees have always been pollinators. Insects have been mobilized in tactics of war since antiquity.[19] What has changed in the contemporary global moment is that the future of human life has become increasingly entangled with the maximization of bees as workers. Though their future as pollinators remains in question, their life and death is indispensable to human vitality and longevity. The death of bees via colony collapse disorder will not result in the death of humans. However, it will affect global food production. Agribusiness revenues and western diets are at stake. How are we to make sense of this all? Are colony collapse disorder and the death of bees symptomatic of a crisis in capitalism, one that Marx and Engels predicted in the nineteenth century? Or is the appropriation and instrumentalization of bees for agribusiness and military purposes evidence of capitalism’s expanding horizons? What might the life and death of bees tell us of the changing configurations of global capitalism? To address these questions, I turn to the materialism of Marx and Engels.

Metabolic Interaction ///

The fluctuating and oppositional entanglements between human and nonhuman life and death, signaled by the bee’s competing roles as pollinator and military agent, demand new analytic tools and innovations. These include modes of reading philosophies, imagining ontologies, and practicing politics, all part of a larger project that I can only begin to gesture to here. Marx and Engels are central to my approach. Both have figured prominently, though inconsistently, in recent discussions on climate change and ecological crisis. As nineteenth century critics, their relevance to contemporary discussions has been contested.[20] What I propose below is a materialist (re)turn to their writings, one that revolts against conventional readings.[21] A materialist (re)reading of Marx and Engels foregrounds the interrelationality of human and nature in their work. More importantly, it invites reflections on the entanglements between bee and human life and death in the global expansion of capitalism.

Marx and Engels have long been regarded as the progenitors of historical materialism. However, Marx’s materialist understandings of history, we should recall, was deeply shaped through his early engagements with Epicurus. While some readers have glossed this critical influence, others have insisted that Marx’s historical materialism must engage with the other materialisms that run through his work.[22] The relation between history and nature, and the influences of Epicurean philosophy, can be traced in many of his sole authored and collaborative writings: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals,” he wrote with Engels. “Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.[23]

It is helpful for my discussion that Marx commented famously, albeit briefly, on the bee as worker. In Capital: Volume I, he describes labor as “a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature.[24]” A few lines later, he writes: “We presuppose labor in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax.[25]” Insect enthusiasts have read this passage in conflicting ways.[26] Jake Kosek reads Marx as “drawing the line between the human and nonhuman on the back of the bee,” which for him, signals the limits of historical materialism. In Timothy Mitchell’s account, Marx’s comments point to a more-than-human agency. “For Marx, individual capitalists are to be understood not as agents in their own right, but as those who personify the power of capital.[27]” My own interest centers on whether we might (re)read Marx and Engels materially, in ways that account for the entangled relations between human and bee workers. Is there a more-than-humanness that might be adumbrated in Marx’s claim: “We presuppose labor in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic”?

To be sure, Marx and Engels could not have foreshadowed the technological and scientific developments that have rendered distinctions between human and nonhuman life and death to be as inseparable as they are today. But there are suggestive insights in Marx that undermine the history-nature divide that has been thought to be so central to his work. Let me offer two brief examples. Marx characterized labor as a material activity through which humans transformed themselves and the natural world: “Labor is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which humans, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.[28]” Thus, for Marx, the relationship between man and nature existed in an exchange of forces.

Marx expanded his view on the circulating forces between humans and nature in the idea of “metabolic interaction,” a process that was not only evident in human labor but also in the natural world. The global expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century generated social and ecological conditions that disrupted this exchange. The demands of capitalism, Marx argued, produced a higher concentration of workers in cities. This affected historical configurations of power and also carried serious ecological effects. The growth of urban industrial centers, he wrote, “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil.[29]” Capitalism’s insatiable appetite disrupted the metabolic interaction between human and nature, increasing strains on both.[30]

It is in this disjuncture between nature and capitalism that we might situate colony collapse disorder. Capitalism’s demands on what we have come to call nature have become so acute that they have required a series of interventions ranging from fertilizers to pesticides. Neonicotinoid insecticides, thought to be responsible for CCD, can be coated on seeds, poured into the soil, or sprayed on crops. Irrespective of application, they return us to the soil. Efforts to enhance and/or protect the soil, all in the interests of crop improvement and maximization, combined with the ongoing effects of environmental damage have produced a series of unintended consequences, including the decline of the honeybee. Efforts to counter these destructive effects — through the importation of foreign bees, for example – have only generated additional problems, most notably parasites.

The use of military bees in the detection of landmines also returns us to soil. Buried underground, the toxicity of landmines is responsible for soil depletion, rendering some regions of the world to be inhospitable to human and non-human life. Though Marx’s observations on soil centered on nineteenth century England, what history tells us is that colonial capitalism and imperial interventions have produced environmental hazards that are not equally distributed. According to UNICEF, the short-term and long-term effects of landmines are most evident in Africa, where “an estimated 37 million mines” are “embedded in the soil of at least 19 countries.[31]” As the global north expresses heightened concerns of colony collapse disorder, foreign bees, and western diets, capitalism and war have destroyed the metabolic interaction of human-nature, making parts of the Global South uninhabitable for human-nonhuman life forms.

But what of the bee? The bee as worker — in agricultural and military futures — may illuminate the contradictions of capitalism that Marx and Engels anticipated in the nineteenth century. At the same time, its expanded role in life and death might also signal the proliferation and expansion of capitalism’s own metabolic power.

A Crisis of Capitalism? ///

What is at stake in thinking of labor as an interaction between bee and human? What might we achieve analytically and politically in thinking of the more-than-human not as a passive site of labor but as an active participant? The laboring bee is a lively source of labor that is critical to human longevity, as evidenced in agricultural, military, and technological futures. The life and death of bees — as pollinators, military agents, and biological-mechanical prototypes — has become increasingly entangled with human life. To be sure, these interrelations demand attention in their own right as a mode of rethinking relations between human-nature-politics.. But bees, like soil, might also be a barometer for the metamorphosis of capitalism, its proliferating forces, and its devastating effects on human-nature ecologies and exchanges. Threats of colony collapse disorder — and more recently of foreign bee workers and their effects on indigenous bees — point to a series of cross-species interdependencies that are highly asymmetrical. Humans, Marx reminds us, do not exist outside or beyond the vitality of nature but in a changing “metabolic interaction” that is itself an effect of captialism’s expanding edges.[32]

NOTES /// 

1. Fiona Macrae, “The Foreign Bees Posing a Deadly Threat to our Hives,” 18 July 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2367772/The-foreign-bees-posing-deadly-threat-hives-Trade-importing-species-riddled-parasites-tightened-say-scientists.html (accessed 10 November 2014).

2. “Foreign Worker Bees set to Face Ban in the UK,” Western Daily Press, 27 November 2014. http://www.westerndailypress.co.uk/Foreign-worker-bees-set-face-ban-UK/story-24763941-detail/story.html (accessed 10 November 2014).

3. Ibid.

4. For a discussion of the regulations governing the import and export of bees to the UK see https://www.gov.uk/bee-health (accessed 11 December 2014).

5. For a discussion of these dynamics along Canada’s west coast see Renisa Mawani, Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871-1921 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009).

6. There is a complex division of labor among honeybees that I cannot address here. For now, I use the generic term “workers.”

7. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “Empowering Nature, or: Some Gleanings in Bee Culture,” in S. Yanagisako and Carol Delaney (eds.), Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 123.

8. William Shakespeare, Henry V (London: Penguin Books, 2010), Act I, Scene II, p. 16.

9. For a fuller discussion on this point, see Renisa Mawani, “Insects, War, Plastic Life,” in Brenna Bhandar and Jonathan Goldberg Hiller, Plastic Materialities: Politics, Legality, and Metamorphosis in the work of Catherine Malabou (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming).

10. On art and aesthetics see Mary Kosut and Lisa Jean Moore, “Bees Making Art: Insect Aesthetics and the Ecological Moment,” Humanimalia, 5(2), 2014, p. 1-2.

11. Popular Science, http://www.popsci.com/tags/honeybees (accessed 13 November 2014).

12. United Nations Environmental Program, Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and other Threats to Insect Pollinators, 2010 http://www.unep.org/dewa/Portals/67/pdf/Global_Bee_Colony_Disorder_and_Threats_insect_pollinators.pdf (accessed 1 November 2014).

13. Ibid.

14. Sun Parlor Honey Ltd., and 1187607 Ontario Ltd. (Munro Honey) and Bayer Cropscience Inc., Bayer Inc., and Sygenta Canada International. Ontario Superior Court, Court File CV-14-21208

http://www.ontariobee.com/sites/ontariobee.com/files/DOCSLIB-%232440628-v1-AMENDED_Claim.pdf (accessed 10 November 2014).

15. Jake Kosek, “Ecologies of Empire: On the New Uses of the Honeybee,” Cultural Anthropology, 25(4), p. 655.

16. Abby Seif, “Bugging Out on Homeland Security,” Popular Science, 7 March 2007. http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2007-03/bugging-out-homeland-security (accessed 13 November 2014)

17. It is hard to know how many bees die in military training. According to one source, bees that are confined for testing experience high rates of mortality after 48 hours. Stephen Ornes, “Using Bees to Detect Bombs,” MIT Technology Review, 7 December 2006. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/406961/using-bees-to-detect-bombs (accessed 1 December 2014).

18. James Dao, “After Duty, Dogs Suffer like Soldiers,” New York Times, 1 December 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/02/us/more-military-dogs-show-signs-of-combat-stress.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (accessed 11 November 2014).

19. Jeffrey A. Lockwood, Six Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

20. John Bellamy Foster offers a materialist reading of Marx in Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000). See also Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Marx’s Ecology in the 21st Century,” World Review of Political Economy, 1(1), March 2010, p. 142-156.

21. In the Preface to The German Ideology, and in response to the Young Hegelians, Marx and Engels write: “Let us revolt against this rule of concepts.”  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998). The historical materialism of Marx has often been positioned against other materialisms. See Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), xvi.

22. Clark and Foster, “Marx’s Ecology,” p. 144.

23. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, p. 37.

24. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: Penguin, 1976), p. 283.

25. Marx, Capital: Volume I, p. 284.

26. Kosek, “Ecologies of Empire,” p. 669; Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 45; Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia, p. 409, n.38.

27. Mitchell, Rule of Experts, p. 30.

28. Marx, Capital, Volume I, pg. 283.

29. Marx, Capital, Volume I, pg. 637.

30. John Bellamy Foster has termed this “metabolic rift.” See Foster, Marx’s Ecology. See also Clark and Foster, “Marx’s Ecology,” p. 145.

31. UNICEF, “Land-mines: A Deadly Inheritance.” http://www.unicef.org/graca/mines.htm (accessed 13 December 2014).

32. Marx, Capital: Volume I, p. 637.

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