Do bee do bee do

beesHere is the first of ‘Eleven theses on art and politics’ for my talk in Copenhagen on thursday (‘Forms of engagement, Configurations of politics’ conference):

1. Do Bees have art?

“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.” – Marx, Capital I, p284

In Marx’s passage about the bees and the architects, clearly it is the bees who do not have representation, despite their excellent construction skills. The (human) architect constructs a structure in the mind (or on paper) before building it in the world. We can call this art. If we are to take Marx’s analogy seriously, bees do not have art, they have sting and a love of nectar, but no art.

But if art is different to politics, do bees have politics? Is the art of politics one of opportunity and struggle in the real? Or is strategy and tactics the equivalent of art in the human? Debord’s interest in strategy, as well as that long tradition within communism, will be relevant here. It may be that bees, with their hierarchy in the hive, but also their expansive quest to pollinate, have in fact a politics that can teach us.

But perhaps the bees have been caught up and caged. In England, we are told that bees are under threat and our entire biosphere is in danger if bees cease to do the endless work of pollinating flowers – which connects up nature to culture to economy in ways only hinted at by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Meanwhile, in the advanced sectors of capital:

Nicole Pepperel writes: I have to admit, I’ve never particularly thought about the industrial organisation of crop pollination, until I read this column from the New York Times discussing possible responses to Colony Collapse Disorder – the mysterious plague that causes adult bees to desert their hives, leaving honey and larvae behind. I found this image particularly striking:

“…it is important to add that, here in the United States, the majority of our crops are pollinated not by wild bees, or even by honeybees like mine, which live in one location throughout the year, but by a vast mobile fleet of honeybees-for-rent”.

“From the almond trees of California to the blueberry bushes of Maine, hundreds of thousands of domestic honeybee hives travel the interstate highways on tractor-trailers. The trucks pull into a field or orchard just in time for the bloom; the hives are unloaded; and the bees are released. Then, when the work of pollination is done, the bees are loaded up, and the trucks pull out, heading for the next crop due to bloom”.

(Originally posted by N Pepperell 29/01/2009

Clearly there is a politics of bees, and it is of more importance than we often concede. So, as Adorno says…


About john hutnyk

Writer on culture, cities, diaspora, history, film, prisons, colonialism, education, Marxism. Studied and taught in Australia at Deakin and Melbourne Universities; and in the UK in Manchester University’s Institute for Creative and Cultural Research; before moving to Goldsmiths in 1998, and becoming Academic Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies in 2004-2014. Has held visiting researcher posts in Germany at the South Asia Institute and Institute fur Ethnologie at Heidelberg University, and Visiting Professor posts in InterCultural Studies at Nagoya City University Japan, Zeppelin University and Hamburg University, Germany, Sociology at Mimar Sinan University, Istanbul, Turkey and at the Graduate institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. Immediate past adjunct Professor of RMIT University, Melbourne and GIAN Visiting Professor Jadavpur Uni Kolkata.
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9 Responses to Do bee do bee do

  1. john hutnyk says:

    A SPACIOUS Hive well stock’d with Bees,
    That lived in Luxury and Ease;
    And yet as fam’d for Laws and Arms,
    As yielding large and early Swarms;
    Was counted the great Nursery [5]
    Of Sciences and Industry.
    No Bees had better Government,
    More Fickleness, or less Content.
    They were not Slaves to Tyranny,
    Nor ruled by wild Democracy; [10]
    But Kings, that could not wrong, because
    Their Power was circumscrib’d by Laws.
    These Insects lived like Men, and all
    Our Actions they perform’d in small:
    They did whatever’s done in Town, [15]
    And what belongs to Sword, or Gown:
    Tho’ th’Artful Works, by nible Slight;
    Of minute Limbs, ‘scaped Human Sight
    Yet we’ve no Engines; Labourers,
    Ships, Castles, Arms, Artificers, [20]
    Craft, Science, Shop, or Instrument,
    But they had an Equivalent:
    Which, since their Language is unknown,
    Must be call’d, as we do our own.
    As grant, that among other Things [25]
    They wanted Dice, yet they had Kings;
    And those had Guards; from whence we may
    Justly conclude, they had some Play;
    Unless a Regiment be shewn
    Of Soldiers, that make use of none. [30]

    Bernard de Mandeville 1705 ‘The Grumbling Hive’

  2. Rico says:

    “But, for things in nature, such as stones, plants, etc., the word ‘soul’…can only be used metaphorically. The soul of merely natural things is explicitly finite and transitory, and should be called ‘specific nature’ rather than ‘soul’.” (p. 430, The Hegel Reader, Houlgate)

    Since bees do not have souls, and art “belongs to the absolute sphere of the spirit” (p. 426), bees do not have art.

    Do they have politics? Of course! By examining their strategies of defense of the hive, they have a sense of who belongs and who does not belong! This is politics at its most fundamental realization.

    I am looking forward to the rest of the theses on art and politics!

  3. Tom says:

    Bees and strategy – maybe a kind of crazy, complex systems notion of strategy, e.g.

    Bored at work and trying to come up with names for this publication. Do you think ‘toten Hund’ is too goth? I think it’s way too goth, but I kind of like it because of that. ‘Dead Dog’ would be the punk rock version; way too full on, but it appeals because it’s so unsuitable. Better ideas and suggestions gratfeully received


  4. john hutnyk says:

    See this here for a useful link to the Bumblebee trust, among other good thoughts:
    much appreciated. j

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  8. Adony says:

    I think Marx had it correct and it is the inability to differentiate us from bees in the present that is the reason the problem of bees today cannot be posed in anything but a mystified way:

    Disapperances: Reflections on the collapse of honey bees and the Left (

    “The opening sequence of Silence of the Bees is of various panned-out urban scenes of masses of people going to work. The footage has been sped up to eliminate any trace of human intention and to prepare for the bee hive footage to follow. The shot is reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s experimental documentary film Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which portrays a city waking as its population goes to work in a similar way. Vertov’s city dwellers, however, have a curious relation with the technologies of labor and leisure, one that fits the description of “labor tending into play.” Vertov’s 1920s masses stand in striking contrast to the bee-like masses of the present. An active and political Left made possible the understanding of how social labor could become conscious through the politics of freedom. It is perhaps because the politicization of the labor movement has no “connection with nature”—unlike the labor of the bee hive—that it was able to push against all preconceived limits of how society might be configured. Its social imagination was not limited to merely emulating patterns observed in the natural world. The framing of human labor as somehow “natural” is precisely what the Left challenged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the disappearance of this challenge that draws us back to look for a “connection with nature” and prevents us from identifying the basis of agricultural problems in our alienated labor”.

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