Making Sense of Society: Siobhan Maderson

April 5, 2017 1611

For the last two years the United Kingdom’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has held a writing competition to encourage and recognize the writing skills of ESRC-funded students. Winners for the 2016 round were honored March 21 at a ceremony in London. Social Science Space will publish the winning essays, runners-up and eight shortlisted pieces in the next few weeks; here we present the shortlisted essay, “Ensuring A Sweeter Future: Beekeepers’ Local Environmental Knowledge,” from Siobhan Maderson of Aberystwyth University.

For more on the competition, click here.


Ensuring A Sweeter Future: Beekeepers’ Local Environmental Knowledge

Siobhan Maderson

Siobhan Maderson

By Siobhan Maderson
My research? It’s only of interest and relevance to people who eat food. If you’ve managed to transcend the biological links that connect you to the myriad other species who share this planet, feel free to look away now.

I’m studying the environmental knowledge of long-term beekeepers. By investigating what they have seen during their years of beekeeping, we gain a deeper understanding of exactly how and where the environment is changing, and how these changes impact pollinators.

There is a lot of media interest and life science research on bees and pollinators lately. Pollinators are in trouble, and about 75% of everything we eat and drink is dependent on them. We would probably survive without them – but that’s all it would be. Survival. If you think British cuisine was grim before Oliver and Ottolenghi – imagine it without pollinators.

Beekeepers are recognised as key stakeholders when it comes to monitoring and protecting bee and pollinator health. Some beekeepers were involved with drafting recent government policy initiatives which aim to reverse pollinator decline. My research raises important questions as to whether new policies will have their desired effect.

My interviewees have been keeping bees for at least 20 years – some for 50, or even 70 years. I’ve found that beekeepers develop a heightened awareness of wider environmental trends, such as changes in weather and flowering times, and the frequency of other bird, insect and animal species. Long term beekeepers are environmental sentinels. Qualitative research on their knowledge can enhance other forms of environmental research, which are often temporally and spatially limited.

Recent years have seen a ‘participatory turn’ in governance. Efforts are being made to make government more accountable and inclusive. 2016 has been notable for showing the level of political disenfranchisement felt by many. Political decision-making processes affect all of us, and the wider environment. It’s more important than ever that policy makers, and the democratic process, engage with people who have been left out of the traditional networks of power. But are these efforts really working? And what happens when disparate voices collide with vested interests?

As we move into a ‘post-truth world’, we need to think about multiple truths, knowledges, and perspectives. And when it comes to bees, this means engaging with diverse, often contradictory beekeepers’ opinions, and incorporating beekeepers’ critiques of agricultural practices into land use policies.

For every optimistic beekeeper who tells me pollinator strategies are succeeding because bees are in the media, I find another who is profoundly sceptical about whether government responses are anything more than window dressing. Many of my interviewees believe that protecting pollinators will require radical changes.

Let’s start with our food system. Producing and providing food for our ever-growing population has powerful environmental impacts. Industrial methods of food production are dependent on staggering quantities of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Monocrops are grown on a massive scale. Bees and other pollinators are a vital part of the food systems that sustain us all. And yet, our industrialised food system damages pollinators.

My interviewees are passionate about their bees, and this often leads them into a deeper engagement with their natural environment. In our increasingly digital age, we need to engage with what these people know, and what they see. Their observations are more than a quirky hobby. Beekeepers are holders of Local Environmental Knowledge (LEK). This tacit, experiential knowledge exists in Arctic communities’ observations of changing ice patterns, in Turkish fishing communities, and in British beekeepers. All these groups are united by their long-term engagement with the natural world. Their knowledge of environmental trends and patterns is a product of their long-term experience – whether that is hunting, fishing, or beekeeping. These communities express a real love, and connection to, their natural world. Many beekeepers are concerned that, for all the government policies espousing support for our precious pollinators, there are underlying problems in our industrial food system that will undermine the best efforts of all these policies. If we truly want to protect our pollinators, and ourselves, we need to take a hard look at our food production system, and our shopping basket. Just ask a beekeeper. Their LEK could be the key to our future. Research has shown that LEK can contribute to socio-ecological resilience. However, LEK, and its holders, are often not granted the same respect and significance as quantitative, scientific data. My research highlights the unique perspective, and benefits of beekeepers’ experiential knowledge.

Engaging with different forms of knowledge will require significant changes to our economy, our society, and our attitude to the environment. But if we truly aspire to be sustainable, and develop participatory democratic systems that reflect the importance of the human and non-human inhabitants of our world, we need to make bold decisions that incorporate LEK.

Even the humble bee is a political animal.


“Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual” |Wilhelmiina Toivo, University of Glasgow

“Living and looking for lavatories” | Lauren White, University of Sheffield


“Marginal money, mainstream economy”| Max Gallien, London School of Economics and Political Science

“Biotechnology and the world of tomorrow” | Elo Luik, University of Oxford


“Better healthcare with deep data” | Alison Harper, University of Exeter

“Child labour: making childhood work” |Sophie Hedges, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

“What future while living in uncertainty?” | Vanessa Hughes, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Ensuring a sweeter future” | Siobhan Maderson, Aberystwyth University

“Understanding the forgotten decade” | David Pollard, University of Birmingham

“Schools, funding and donor power” | Ruth Puttick, Newcastle University

“Fostering inclusion in the face of division” | Caoimhe Ryan, University of St Andrews

“Listen to the local” | Ruben Schneider, University of Aberdeen

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