Bee Audacious Gathering – Part One

By Diane Dunaway –

More than a whim, on the third of June, 2016, a reminder came through the mail. Applications open for the Bee Audacious conference. Earlier in the day I’d busied myself capturing a small swarm in our home apiary. Here was an opportunity to join a larger one consisting of academics, researchers, extension workers, commercial operators, NGO heads, backyard beekeepers, and government representatives—all with a focus on the betterment of bees, pollinators, and those who manage them.

Bee honey comb. Bee frame in spring, full of pollen and promise. Photo: Diane Dunaway.

Bee frame in spring, full of pollen and promise. Photo: Diane Dunaway.

Both daunting and alluring, two world-renowned bee researchers evolved their understanding of bee communication to create a template for us to follow:

“Inspired by Simon Fraser University’s Dr. Mark Winston’s editorial in the April 2015 Bee Culture Magazine, his “Manifesto” (http://winstonhive.com/?p=504). This will not be a traditional conference, but one guided by the methods utilized at the Simon Fraser University Center for Dialogue (http://www.sfu.ca/dialogue.html) and Cornell’s Dr. Thomas Seeley’s Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives (https://hbr.org/2010/11/the-five-habits-of-highly-effe). We are gathering a group of constructive, collaborative, and thoughtful people who will bring experience from a wide variety of fields that produce impacts on pollinators.

There will be few presentations. Most the time will be spent in small working groups in active dialogues working from an agenda developed by participants in advance, as well as from agenda items that develop during the conference. Because of the nature of the meetings, we are limiting participation to 100 people, which includes 10 leaders, 45 invited individuals, and 45 people selected from submitted registration applications by a committee.”

I optimistically vied for one of the 45 openings. Questions varied from, “Why do you want to attend?” to, “affiliations, experience, related volunteerism, and an example of at least one audacious idea.” As someone who loves both bees and language, I explored the meaning:
au·da·cious
1. showing a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks.
2. showing an impudent lack of respect.

The latter definition doesn’t jive with me. Open dialogue and leading by example seem better suited for real, positive change.

Whatever I said worked. Six weeks later came the invitation and a spontaneous happy dance! What felt like a pie-in-the-sky chance transformed into a warm welcome. My thinking cap went into overdrive. The honey bee crisis has been in the headlines since Colony Collapse Disorder became a household phrase in 2007. Bees are the second most studied insect in the world, which means we have a wealth of knowledge about them and related species. Stressful management practices, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure, and habitat loss are thought to be factors in their decline. How then to contribute? What’s not already been considered? Can we turn things around? What of native pollinators?

Summer, then fall, swept by. At the back of my mind I kept space for audacious solutions to the bee crisis. This filter applied to every magazine article, television interview, book, and bee inspection that crossed my path. I ordered Thomas Friedman’s, Thank You for Being Late about the age of accelerations. Added Tim Harford’s, Messy, The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives to the shelf. I put Facebook posts out to beekeeping clubs about the conference and called beekeeper friends throughout the province for input. Despite these efforts, when the December deadline rolled around, I still felt anxious.

California—a place to grow food and inspire songs; a place of commerce and creative minds. It attracts outliers. On December 10, I landed in San Francisco, soon joined by travel and conference buddies Wendi Gilson and David MacDonald, both from Salt Spring Island, and both fellow apiary inspectors. While they knew each other as neighbours, the three of us hadn’t spent any real time together. It’s fair to say we bonded over the next week. Our rental car came with Texas plates that we joked gave us a wide berth in this mostly Democratic state. We shared delicious meals, accommodation, good laughs, debriefs, and interesting exchanges about our approaches to keeping bees. This companionship was among the highlights of my trip.

Our first day entailed a stopover at Fisherman’s Wharf. Here we took in the fresh, warm saltwater air, looked out at Alcatraz Island while imagining its coloured history as a desolate prison. To end the morning, the resident sea lions caught our attention as they jousted for positions on their designated rafts in the harbour. It was hard for us to pull ourselves away from their antics. From there we punched in the GPS and headed for Marin County. The crowded streets of San Francisco gave way to narrow roads, replete with Sunday cyclists and pastoral countryside.

By late afternoon we found ourselves in a cavernous hall at the historic Marconi Conference Center. Surrounded by about 100 participants from seven countries, at least four provinces, and two-dozen states, the place was abuzz. The bee world, while widespread, is small. Familiar faces and names abounded. Soon we were welcomed by organizer Bonnie Morse; read the riot act by Mark Winston (Chatham House rules, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed); and lastly, spellbound by keynote speaker, Dr. Larry Brilliant, an American physician, epidemiologist, technologist, author, and the former director of Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org. He helped eradicate smallpox. The bar was set high.

Making it possible. Bee Audacious co-founder Gary Morse stands next to a banner of conference sponsors. Photo: Sierra Salin

Making it possible. Bee Audacious co-founder Gary Morse stands next to a banner of conference sponsors. Photo: Sierra Salin

For the next three days, we broke out into small discussion groups for intervals followed by brief report backs to the whole. We looked at everything from values that we bring to protecting and keeping bees, pollination services, research funding conflicts, business models, management based on natural resistance versus chemical interventions, how to engage the general public, stationary or migratory practices, extension services, and best regulatory models. It was an extensive list that evolved over time.

We were told where to go for most of these sessions; the last one was by choice. This created an interesting dilemma. Do I go to a session where I can offer the most hands-on experience? Do I attend a session because I feel an affinity for the facilitator? After all, there were many rock stars of the bee world in our midst. It wasn’t so much that these were entirely mutually exclusive, but there were choices to be made.

I chose a session about extension services and regulations. As an apiary inspector, I felt I could bring some experience to the table. Someone joked that maybe this was more of a therapy session for those working in a gutted infrastructure. Spotlight British Columbia. As much as our government apiculture program has financial and time restraints, I came to realize that we do an amazing job with available resources. Inspectors issue sales, movement, and health permits. We deliver educational services and spend computer time troubleshooting for perplexed beekeepers. Our provincial health lab in Abbotsford offers free analysis for anyone who submits samples. Others in the room were in awe of the simplicity of our program and how inclusive it is. We moved from a place of gloom to genuine optimism as we brainstormed ways to deliver much needed services. A Go Fund Me crowd source initiative came out of this meeting.

On December 13, we left the Marconi Centre with a stop to tour and taste at nearby Heidrun Meadery. Oysters on the half-shell, local cheeses, fabulous mead, and a cheerful serving staff comprised of local bee club volunteers rounded out the social. Our trio hung out to the end with a lovely musician who bravely plucked her guitar and sang her tunes despite a distracted audience. From there we drove to San Raphael for the night. It was raining, we nearly got lost, but for the GPS voice- over, a friend if not close relation to Siri, we’re sure.

As is the California way, another gourmet reception was rolled out on our behalf the following evening at Dominican University. It’s here where conference leaders, moderated by television journalist Doug McConnell, presented a panel discussion and summary of our Bee Audacious efforts. This 1:42 hour discourse is available in its entirety on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDkR7looBio Or you can visit the Bee Audacious website’s Bee-log blog to read in detail about some of our findings: http://beeaudacious.com/index.php/beelog/.

The evening came to a close with hugs, smiles, and book signings by conference participants.

From there we returned to our motel room, packed our bags, and set the alarm for an early start. By seven the next morning we said our goodbyes at SFO and went our separate ways.

Next issue: Bee Audacious Gathering Part Two – Where to go from here?

Diane Dunaway has kept bees for over 20 years. A bee master since 2001, and apiary inspector since 2015, she’s run up to 100 colonies from her Bee Happy Honey farm in the Soda Creek valley of the Cariboo. A strong believer lifelong learning, Diane’s active with bee-keen neighbourhood kids, her local bee club, and educational opportunities from afar. When she’s not chasing swarms around the countryside, Diane can be found at home with Dave her husband of 25 years and their menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, chickens, ducks, and donkey Fanny.

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