Resisting the commodification of our lives can take many forms, and one that feels right to me is beekeeping.
I first became interested in beekeeping when a friend I was living with had a hive that he would gently tend to in our back yard. I was attracted to the attuned seasonality of keeping bees, the endless fascination they provided and the way bees drew me away from overwhelming life to focus on something immediate and tactile. I also appreciated that back-yard beekeeping wasn’t profit-driven like so many aspects of our lives are now, whether for our own profit or the profit of corporations.
Capitalism has created mounting pressure for our lives to be as productive and profitable as possible, and not just while we’re at work. I can feel the pressure permeating my everyday activities, pushing me to strive for ‘success’ in everything I do, manipulating my priorities and exploiting my creativity every day. Even simple hobbies—ideally intended as a break from the live-to-work grind—feel output-driven as we further succumb to what Marx would call ‘commodity fetishism’.
Other times, the product is our own attention and emotion. Take doom-scrolling, for example. Social media’s addictive architecture is creating a vacuum that harvests our attention, time, energy and emotional responses to generate profit for others while barely gratifying us. With so many aspects of our lives being manipulated in a similar way—extracting our energy for profit while offering us the bare minimum in return—it feels increasingly important to learn to resist this influence on a personal level, to reclaim a sense of connection and calm.
Jenny Odell, the artist and writer of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, might describe beekeeping as a form of ‘resistance-in-place’. Odell examines our relationship with the attention economy, highlighting that our attention is now a currency for corporations. ‘To resist in place,’ she writes, ‘is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case,
a frame of reference in which value is deterred by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship.’ This has helped me understand the importance of making sure there are pieces of myself that can’t be so easily exploited.
I began to see that ‘doing nothing’ in this context doesn’t mean sitting and staring at a wall or television all day, but rather reclaiming my own attention to connect more deeply with my immediate surroundings. As Odell writes, this is ‘a refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough’. And so I came to see my beekeeping as an important piece of my practice of resistance-in-place—a resistance that requires constant vigilance to fight the temptation of doom-scrolling or laying on the lounge room floor watching Daria reruns, which are all the more tempting in the mental health wake of lockdowns.
Of course, beekeeping is an obvious act of resistance against ecological degradation, given that we can’t survive without bees, which was one of the main reasons I was drawn to beekeeping as a hobby. But in addition to the environmental benefits of managing a box full of happy pollinators, beekeeping is also imbued with a deepening of care, community, attention and connection to place.
The history of ethical beekeeping reflects the respect that humans have always had for bees. Humans originally carried our bees on our backs as we migrated from country to country, and we have largely nurtured this relationship that has supported our survival for thousands of years. However, the commercial and arguably less ethical beekeeping practice required to keep food on our tables, where we can’t grow it ourselves, has heavily exploited this relationship. In Australia, up to 30 per cent of our fresh food is pollinated by bees, mostly in industrial farms across the country, and this is undoubtedly traumatic for the bees that are packed and shipped over and over again to pollinate crops, while also having their honey stripped for sale.
But in the context of my back-yard beekeeping, I live in a gentle kind of co-dependency with the bees. With wild bee numbers across Australia declining each year due to climate change, disease and pesticides, I feel honoured with the privilege of tending to even one hive at my city rental. Their existence doesn’t depend on me, but I can be here to provide safe shelter for them in the hope of increasing their chances of survival without interfering too much with their needs. In return, I am increasing the rates of pollination in my neighbourhood and am given the opportunity to harvest free honey if there is excess available. This honey doesn’t exist for profit either. I never sell it, only trading a jar here or there for things like a fresh homegrown zucchini or a box set of Seinfeld DVDs for my mum. I become a passive custodian of the bees, our needs intersecting non-competitively instead of through demand or exchange for profit.
For many back-yard beekeepers, opening the hive to work with the bees is a solitary exercise that calls for more care than many other routine activities. Bees can sense a beekeeper’s agitation, so the act of checking the hive requires a deep calm that I have struggled to find through other avenues. I move slowly and with intention, moving smoothly around the bees, listening to how they’re reacting, removing frames for inspection, surveying them with mindful visual notetaking, before returning each frame to the hive. The process is all-consuming, drawing me so fully out of myself that it feels like tunnel vision.
Beekeeping also requires different kinds of care at different times of year, which deepens and diversifies the caregiving experience in ways that I think the commodified world struggles to do for us. For example, summer is by far the busiest beekeeping period, when regular checks are encouraged to monitor for disease, provide additional space to be filled with honey and baby bees, moderate potential swarming activity and to make sure the queen bee is healthy. But winter, when I can’t open the hive due to the cold weather, becomes a season of mindful observation and preparation for the coming warmer months. This rhythmic cycle provides a chance to reflect and improve my practice over time, which is something that feels rare in innovation-driven working environments, or on social media where you’re prompted to react immediately or lose the opportunity.
While the tending is often solitary, beekeepers are anything but isolated, and there is an incredible camaraderie in the local beekeeping community. There are several online groups that are usually very supportive, but it’s the ‘offline’ groups that are especially enjoyable. When I started out, ten other beginners and I learnt the basics of beekeeping at a bee school, of sorts, through a local community centre. It was through this group that I eventually bought my first small box of bees to support. When I told the group that I wouldn’t be able to catch up as often because I was moving to Flemington, a suburb further away, they were excited that I would live near the roses growing at Flemington’s famous racecourses and told me to keep a tastebud out for rose-tinted flavours in the honey. I still call this group’s teacher whenever I need beekeeping advice.
In a refreshing shift from the alienation that comes with living and working in an over-capitalised world, where it’s each for their own, these beekeeping groups act as a rare, lateral support network. Beekeepers are often charitable and generous with their time, always very happy to share their experiences with me and learn from my mistakes or lessons in kind. Stanislava Pinchuk, a Ukrainian-Australian artist, spoke eloquently in a 2020 episode of Australian podcast Mont Icons of the mutual, charitable friendship that beekeepers around the world feel towards each other. ‘There’s just such a curiosity about how you do it, what your bees are like, the nuances of your place and your seasons,’ she said. ‘You just learn by talking and doing. So beekeepers have this really amazing kind of charity wherever you go. And this real understanding of the care of what you do.’
Counter to my more mindless hobbies is the attention that tending to bees inspires in me—attention that varies in its depth of focus, ranging from passive observation to meditative focus, unlike the homogenous, habitual energy I give Instagram. Whereas a walk or housework might be accompanied by a podcast, there is no attention spared for multitasking while the hive is open. Through a growing admiration of these tiny creatures and a fascination with the never-ending complexity of a bee’s world, I spend more spare time quietly watching the front of the hive: alert to any unusual movement, listening to the gentle hum of worker bees and the slightly louder buzz of drone bees, smelling the sweet wafts of new honey, and admiring the rhythmic order that rules their lives.
I find myself connecting more intimately to the environment around me as well—not to the buildings, roads or other industrial structures that usually define a suburb, but to the Wurundjeri bioregion that surrounds me yet often escapes my notice. When I watch bees coming and going from the hive with endlessly changing coloured pollen on their legs—often soft yellow or white, sometimes bright pink—I can’t help but wonder where they’ve collected it from.
While bees use their foraged pollen to feed themselves in the short term, they are also carrying nectar that is used to make honey: a blend of nectar collected between one and six kilometres from the hive. Knowing this means that I naturally pay much closer attention to the blossoms in my local area each week, to see if I might be able to notice what the bees bring home. The colour of pollen and the flavour of honey of course changes with the time of year. From my own neighbourhood, bees forage from sweet-scented daphne flowers during winter and bright lemon or pittosporum flowers during autumn and spring. I am more inclined to notice autumn lavender and summer rosemary flowers bursting out of my neighbours’ front yards, ready to be foraged from.
Council-planted peppermint or lemon-scented gum trees are dotted across the parks and streets, while silver banksia and river red gums line the local creek beds, keeping the bees busy and my attention pleasantly occupied all year round. Before beekeeping I would have walked to the tram stop with headphones blaring, face in my phone, but now I have the awareness to look for flowers in bloom and wonder whether I’ll be able to notice their flavours in my bees’ honey. Practising this level of sensory attention is not only a meditative reprieve from the daily grind, it also deepens my understanding and knowledge of my own spatial context and offers the salve of an enriched locality—a kind of therapy in my post-COVID mental health recovery.
This return of attention to the meaningful detail of everyday life and how it intersects with commodity fetishism is captured in resistance poet Elena Gomez’s collection Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt:
I’ll forget to pay attention. The vines in my own backyard.
Can someone recall what we named them?
I’m always distracted.
I’ve got Chelsea Blue jeans.
But I remember. The vine that was ready to escape my backyard was called Electrolyte. I remembered because I would wrap it up around me when I woke hungover many mornings.
Through the bees and the practice of keeping them, I can feel the status quo of ruthless competition, profit hunger and hyper-productivity briefly punctuated. Their passive power draws my attention away from the forces that commodify it, directing it towards something that feels slower and more meaningful: the gift of calm connection.
Originally published via: https://meanjin.com.au/memoir/beekeeping-as-an-act-of-resistance/