On World Bee Day, we celebrate our relationship with the bee and the cultural, spiritual, and agricultural impacts bees have on our lives. Through our public-private partnerships and global technology development projects, we are contributing to the preservation and protection of honeybees, while amplifying the message that saving pollinator populations is a collective mission and responsibility.
The San people of the Kalahari Desert tell an origin story that begins with a mantis trying to cross a river that is too wide and too rough for her to go alone. A nearby honeybee notices her distress and offers to ferry her across on his back. Safely to the other side, the honeybee deposits the mantis onto a soft petal and flies away, unaware that inside the mantis is the seed that will become the first human.
Throughout human history, the bee has been such an important companion creature that, long before humans could write, we were recording our sacred relationship on cave walls. In one such pictograph, thought to be around 8,000 years old, a human scales a cliff wall to harvest honey, while enormous bees encircle but never sting. The bold, ochre brush strokes on the walls of the ‘Arana Cave’ near Valencia, Spain, depict the honeybee as a generous and gentle creature; a collaborator to the human beings he—according to the San—helped create.
Of course, the bee’s role in supporting humanity is far more than mythological or spiritual. But for the bee—a winged insect weighing just three grams—we could not relish the juice of a late-summer tomato or share a cup of coffee with a friend, as both tomatoes and coffee beans are two of more than 90 cash crops that rely on bee pollination to fruit. In fact, one-third of the world’s food supply—everything from almonds to alfalfa—relies on the honeybee’s invisible labor; thus, their importance to food production and global biodiversity cannot be overstated.
Formalizing our relationship with the bee, humans began maintaining apiaries or bee yards nearly 9,000 years ago, and though honey by itself has always been prized (the Greeks believed honey was the elixir of the gods), new science and technology makes it possible to extract byproducts from a hive too like royal jelly, bee pollen, propolis and beeswax, which are key ingredients in everything from medicine, to cosmetics, to cookies, chocolate and honey-based wines like Tej. These products help fuel a global honey trade estimated at slightly more than $9 billion dollars.
If bees could speak, they would tell stories of polluted hives overrun by invasive pestilence; of abandoned queens and brood; of stress and poor nutrition; adulteration, habitat destruction and commercial greed and violence. In this story, it is not we who whisper to the bees that our loved one has died, but the bees who whisper to us that they are dying. As global warming and anthropogenic climate change threatens, disrupts or devastates natural ecosystems, human rights to clean food and water, economic stability, and personal health and safety are also jeopardized.
In 2021, the AI-Driven Climate-Smart Beekeeping (AID- CSB) for Women project worked with beekeepers and beekeeping organizations in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan to co-design and localize The Beekeeper’s Companion, a climate-smart information communication technology for development (ICT4D) app designed to support beekeepers’ hive management practices, improve honey production, and collect region-specific information on pollinator health.
This year, the project will further leverage the participation and local knowledge of women beekeepers and national experts; incorporating their traditional and local knowledge into algorithms that will push information and task reminders back to the beekeepers, making apiary management more efficient and enabling community knowledge sharing. Data collected through the app will enable another key project activity: to raise awareness on the linkages between bee and environmental health, and beekeeper activities. For the first time in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan, real-time data can be collected to reveal the status of honeybee health in different parts of the country, enabling further analysis against environmental factors. The project will also host a webinar in June 2022 to build awareness and generate discussion with the global community on these linkages.
Ultimately, the application will help beekeepers more effectively manage their hives, collect data important to scientific research on pollinator populations, and provide women (who are more vulnerable to climate-related issues) a low-barrier economic entry point into sustainable agriculture. Use of the application improves women’s digital literacies, normalizes women’s use of technology, and provides economic autonomy, interrelated issues that help mitigate the effects of biodiversity loss, and, importantly, preserve indigenous knowledge and honor the relationship we have with this hardworking and humble creature.