Bees in the Colonies: Ecological Imperialism and the Modernization of Apiculture

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This is a post in the series Learning from and with Invasive Species: pluralities, refractions, futures, a continuing collection of pieces edited by Estraven Lupino-Smith concerned with how humans choose to relate to species perceived to be “out-of-place” as shaped by ontologies, socioeconomic context, place-based histories, and desires of knowing and belonging to the world. By drawing attention to invasivity as historical production and the fickleness of its adoption, the series takes up discussions around invasion ecology and its relationship to the politics of land, labor, resources, selfhood, and place-making.

Whether it be mountain top or rolling plain,

Making honey means to visit every bloom in sight,

To storm the whole terrain.

They labor so at whose command,

for whose delight?

-Luo Yin (833-909)

By Ceall Quinn

Discourses of ecological invasivity are concerned with the impacts invasive alien species beget in the habitats they are introduced to. These species are figuratively rendered as intruders that disrupt natural cycles of ecological function. Yet Chew and Hamilton’s1 historical account of biotic nativeness shows both the native/alien dichotomy as derived from pre-Darwinian English common law categories of citizenship and notions of human intervention related to the dispersal of species as contingently construed, often falling along developmentalist lines of civilizational progress. The instability of the terms native and alien is further demonstrated by the strategic suspension of nativeness criterion in agricultural contexts where crops and livestock are extended “rights of occupancy”.2 This frame of citizenship and its attendant entitlements to place can help us parse some of the ways ecological belonging gets articulated. 

In this piece, I offer a historical account of the development of the migratory beekeeping industry in the United States. I place the industry’s emergence and maintenance within a trajectory of ecological imperialism, a concept that posits that the successes of settler colonial projects are informed by the introduction of Europe’s plants, animals, and diseases, the presence of which create conditions of “continual disruption”,3 although in fragmentary non-totalizing ways4. From a perspective that accounts for ecological imperialism, colonial conquest is ecological invasion. I suggest that notions of improvement undergird settler claims to land, which agricultural practices are deemed valuable, and a sense of being in or out of place. The honey bees utility yields her a right of occupancy, although in an exploitative manner where intensified commodification sees persistent declines in health due to a series of compounding factors.5 By tracing the histories, politics, and economic factors that inhere in the commercial beekeeping industry, I hope to show how notions of ecological belonging are tied to productivity. Are there ways that discourses of invasivity might occlude both histories and presences of ecological imperialism?

Honey bees on the Comb. J Schwartz

Hiving Off

There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world with sociality ranging on a spectrum from solitary to eusocial. As a eusocial (truly social) species, honey bees are colonial animals par excellence. This means they live in collectively organized societies stratified into castes—queens, workers, drones—with clear divisions of labour. There are multiple species of honey bee, but the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the most intensively managed worldwide. The complexity of honey bee social organization and their historical role as a companion species to humans have captured imaginations for millennia. Honey bees have been rendered as both symbolic and material resource in the service of imperial endeavours. Elizabethan era naval commander Christopher Carleill suggested that teaching Indigenous people to produce beeswax and honey would make them so grateful that they would give up their lands and labours in return for this civilizational gift.6 As Robert Williams remarks, “[e]xploitation of the natives was to be the basis of trade”.7 Meanwhile, promoters of English colonialism in North America like Richard Hakluyt and Francis Bacon invoked swarming to justify imperial expansion.8 For bees, swarming is the colony’s mechanism of reproduction, the process by which a hive splits into two or more distinct colonies. Having the burgeoning and newly criminalized underclass, “hive off”9 to America served a dual purpose: staving off the gentry’s fear of rebellion by relieving population pressure, and establishing an English presence in the so-called New World. Honey bees arrived with colonists in the 1600s, providing a source of sweetness and naturalizing in the seaboard colonies over the course of the seventeenth century.

Theories of Improvement, Land-Grabbing, and Economic Entomology

Theories of improvement undergirded one colonial occupation to the next as the United States emerged from the thigh of British empire. Perhaps best exemplified in the ideas of John Locke, this theory posited that lands perceived as unused were not being used to their full potential and hence, wasted. Wasted lands could be made valuable as property through their mixing with labour. This notion of improvement hinged on the recognition of specific agrarian imaginaries of labour and productivity that rendered Indigenous relationships to land illegible and thus, open for the taking. Though not identical through time nor10 always successful in practice, the logic of improvement drove settler claims to land at the same time as the state sought to expand into a continental empire. 

In 1862, the Morrill Act was passed to raise money for agricultural and mechanical colleges. States were given lands based on the size of their congressional delegation to be used as seed money for educational institutions; if the lands granted exceeded federal land within a state, scrip was issued, allowing the selection of lands in a different state. As Lee and Ahtone11 show, the creation of these “public lands” was based on the expropriation of indigenous territories, whether through outright dispossession or the abrogation of treaties. Legislation like the Morrill Act and the Hatch Act of 1887, which funded agricultural research stations for each state, enabled the “establishment of entomology as a fully professionalized scientific discipline”.12 At the turn of the 20th century, entomology was bifurcated into two streams: one concerned with the life sciences and economic entomology, an application-based approach, organized around agricultural productivity and the control of pests. The development of scientific beekeeping, although invested in the preservation of bee populations unlike the lethal aims of pest management, shared intellectual kinship with economic entomology.13

An illustration of Langstroth’s movable frame hive. Wikinedia Commons.

Before Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth’s 1852 invention of a movable frame hive, harvesting honey—whether in wooden boxes, straw skeps, or clay vessels—necessitated a significant destruction of the colony. Langstroth’s design tapped into “bee space”,14 a space about 3/8ths of an inch long that allows bees to pass between sections of comb; a space smaller or larger would be filled with wax or propolis by the bees. The Langstroth hive was at the heart of a revolution in apiculture, as the movable hives allowed beekeepers to move their colonies in an unprecedented way without destroying them. An epicenter for the development of industrial scale apiculture was upstate New York, where Cornell University—the biggest beneficiary of the Morrill Act—advocated for a new professionalized “progressive and scientific apiculture”.15 Cornell has gathered entomological expertise since its early days,  offering apiculture courses and providing instruction to commercial beekeepers. With the 1924 hiring of the head of the Bee Culture division of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Entomology, Everett Franklin Phillips, Cornell placed itself at the forefront of apicultural research. Franklin was a fierce advocate of a scientific beekeeping characterized by large-scale, professional apiaries supported by an “envirotechnical regime”16 intent on managing honey bee health through chemically-laden principles. While commercial beekeeping was initially centered on increasing the scale of honey production, the portability of hives and improvements in transportation infrastructure created the conditions for a new mobile pollination service to emerge.

Capitalist Industrial Agriculture

After World War II, large-scale chemically dependent agriculture came in vogue. Chemicals developed during wartime were adapted for industrial agriculture, combating nuisance insects and destroying beneficial ones, including wild pollinators. At the same time, the cultivation of lucrative pollinator-dependent crops like almonds, cranberries, and apples expanded. With specialization and increased scale of production, growers were less likely to host their own hives. This opened a niche for the business of pollination services, known today as migratory beekeeping. Migratory beekeeping consists of moving large numbers of hives on semi-trailers around the continent according to the blooming periods of pollination dependent crops. Ellis et al. situate commercial beekeeping within a broader paradigm of capitalist industrial agriculture organized by the economic imperative of achieving industrial scale via “the biological simplification and standardization of agricultural landscapes”.17 Crucially, the pursuit of scale is beset by biophysical barriers (for example soil degradation or the presence of pest insects) that must be overridden by short-term inputs that temporarily aid production at the expense of long term viability. Of perennial concern within the migratory beekeeping industry is bee health. The very conditions that enable production—pesticide and herbicide exposure, poor nutrition, the physical stress of trucking, and pathogen spread from concentrated populations—induce chronic health problems. Furthermore, capitalist agricultures’ simplified landscapes impact wild bee populations as they drive habitat loss and, through subsectors like the migratory beekeeping industry, invite pathogen transfer and floral competition.

Tracing the making of the modern honey bee returns us to discourses of ecological invasivity. The loss of insect populations globally is largely driven by the apparatus of industrial agriculture.18 The techniques, scale, and externalities produced by this mode of production harm both wild and managed bees. At the same time, these agricultural practices can be understood as one way in which settler states territorialize their borders, both historically and in the present.19 Considering the impacts settler occupation has had on local ecologies, the rhetoric of invasion seems an appropriate designation for capitalist agriculture and its driving logic of improvement. If, as Derek Woods suggests, the proper subject of the Anthropocene is not “the human” but rather “modern terraforming assemblages”, then directing critical attention to the ways power informs capitalist agricultural assemblages crucial to understanding biodiversity loss.20 Returning to histories of colonial conquest that inform these assemblages reveals the imperial inheritances that continue to animate the discursive field. 

Feature Image: A honey bee on a flower. M. Vech


  1. Chew, Matthew K., and Andrew L. Hamilton. “The rise and fall of biotic nativeness: a historical perspective.” Fifty years of invasion ecology: the legacy of Charles Elton (2011): 35-48. ↩︎
  2. Ibid, 61. ↩︎
  3. Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological imperialism: the biological expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2004. ↩︎
  4. See Blackhawk’s (2013) for commentary on Crosby’s impact on historiography. A key point of critique is that ecological imperialism can risk coming across as a unidirectional process obscuring the co-productive role of contact and exchange. ↩︎
  5. Kosek, Jake. “Industrial Materials: Labor, Landscapes, and the Industrial Honey Bee.” in How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico/SAR Press Advanced Seminar Series, 2019.  ↩︎
  6. Quinn, David Beers. The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert: Volumes I-II. Routledge, 2017. ↩︎
  7. Williams Jr, Robert A. The American Indian in western legal thought: the discourses of conquest. Oxford University Press, 1992: 61. ↩︎
  8. Hollingsworth, Cristopher. Poetics of the Hive: Insect Metaphor in Literature. University of Iowa Press, 2005. ↩︎
  9. Horn, Tammy. Bees in America: How the honey bee shaped a nation. University Press of Kentucky, 2006. ↩︎
  10. Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of empire: How domestic animals transformed early America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.; Simpson, Audra. Mohawk interruptus: Political life across the borders of settler states. Duke University Press, 2014.; Dahl, Adam. Empire of the people: Settler colonialism and the foundations of modern democratic thought. University Press of Kansas, 2018. ↩︎
  11. Lee Robert, and Tristan Ahtone. “Land-grab Universities.” High Country News. March 30, 2020.  ↩︎
  12. Palladino, Paolo. Entomology, ecology and agriculture: the making of scientific careers in North America, 1885-1985. Vol. 3. Psychology Press, 1996.  ↩︎
  13. Suryanarayanan, Sainath, and Daniel Lee Kleinman. Vanishing bees: Science, politics, and honeybee health. Rutgers University Press, 2016. ↩︎
  14. Oertel, Everett. “History of beekeeping in the United States.” Beekeeping in the United States 335 (1980): 2. ↩︎
  15. Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of empire: How domestic animals transformed early America. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.  ↩︎
  16. Andrews, Eleanor. “‘The main objection to numerous small bee keepers’: biosecurity and the professionalization of beekeeping.” Journal of Historical Geography 67 (2020): 81-90. ↩︎
  17. Ellis, Rebecca A., Tony Weis, Sainath Suryanarayanan, and Kata Beilin. “From a free gift of nature to a precarious commodity: Bees, pollination services, and industrial agriculture.” Journal of Agrarian Change 20, no. 3 (2020): 437-459.  ↩︎
  18. Williams Jr, Robert A. The American Indian in western legal thought: the discourses of conquest. Oxford University Press, 1992.  ↩︎
  19. Belcourt, Billy-Ray. “Animal bodies, colonial subjects:(Re) locating animality in decolonial thought.” Societies 5, no. 1 (2014): 1-11. ↩︎
  20. Woods, Derek. “Scale critique for the Anthropocene.” the minnesota review 2014, no. 83 (2014): 133-142. ↩︎
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Ceall Quinn

Quinn is a PhD student studying (more-than) human geography on stolen Musequam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh lands. His work considers the relationships between social imaginaries and biodiversity loss through the lens of managed and wild pollinators. Recently, he has been thinking about ecological subjectivity in urban spaces and how portable practices of attention might foster a greater sense of place and relation with earth others. When he’s not bee-ing, he loves playing Irish trad tunes, vibing around cityscapes, and reading things he doesn’t understand but might in like, 5 years.

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