In 1996, I was a grad student in psychology at the University of Washington and I read an article in the Whole Earth Review by Kevin Kelly (who, years later, would go on to found Wired Magazine). In it, he described the concept of a “hive mind”. It’s the idea that a colony of individuals, following a very simple rule set, can manifest an emergent property of “mind”.
So, just as your neurons all come together to make your brain, just so the bees in a hive or the ants in a nest can be thought of as a sort of brain as well. The colony can solve problems as a whole, where the individuals who make up the colony can’t even comprehend the question. That idea was just so fascinating to me that I thought: I have got to see this in action. So I decided to get my own beehive to watch it happen.
My name is Jordan Schwartz and I am the CEO of Pathable, a company that produces mobile event apps for conferences and tradeshows. Prior to founding Pathable, I worked at Microsoft, designing and building consumer software. I would go to industry conferences excited to meet visionaries, people who were on the cutting edge of building new ways of interacting, but I would always come away disappointed. I’d be given a name badge and one drink ticket too many, I’d head to the networking event, and I’d get lost in the sea of people. There were clearly people there who I should meet, but how do you find them? I started Pathable in the hopes of creating new ways for people to connect and meet the right people at face-to-face events.
When I first became interested in beekeeping, the Internet had really not taken off, but there was this thing that preceded the web called USENET, a network of online bulletin boards where people could post messages. So I found the beekeepers’ bulletin board, alt.sci.beekeeping, and I posted a note saying I was looking for some guidance, and this sweet woman responded and started giving me advice. The crazy part was that this was the worldwide beekeeping forum (including people all over the world) and after talking to this woman for a couple of weeks, I discovered that she lived just a block away from me in Seattle.
When I started beekeeping, I tried to work with them without all suit and gloves and head net that you typically see, and I made it work for a few years. You can manage it if you’re slow and easy with them, and I learned that if you spray them with sugar water as I work with them, it calms them down better than smoke. But after a while, you get stung enough that it just gets tiring, so now I have a full beekeeping suit and leather gloves that pull up above my elbows and all.
A typical beehive is made up of a set of boxes with square frames of wax that get inserted inside —that all can run you a few hundred dollars to get started, but there are other ways to keep bees that pre-date this “Langstroth-style” hive. I’ve been experimenting with “Kenyan top bar hives”, where you just build an empty box and put the bees inside and let them do the rest. You don’t get the same yield, but it has some advantages in terms of bee health.
I’m somewhat of a lazy beekeeper. I set them up in the spring and check in on them throughout the year to make sure they’re not getting too crowded. If they are, I add a box of frames to give them some room, In the Fall, I pull out the full honeycomb and buckle things up for the winter. That’s it. I know there are many beekeepers who are in their hives often, poking and prodding and optimizing, but I figure they lived for millennia without help from humans, they’ll do alright without my constant ministrations.
I’ve learned many interesting things about bees from my experience and seeing the hive mind at work. You can see that with the “waggle dance”. When a scout has found a new patch of flowers, she’ll return to the hive and do a little dance that describes where to find the nectar trove. Other bees will go and check it out, and if they like it, they’ll come back and do the same dance. This “idea” of the best place to find honey can spread through the hive like an idea taking root in the mind.
The way bees procreate is also pretty crazy. A virgin queen will fly up to a spot high in the sky somewhere, and males (drones) from other hives will fly up to meet her. After they’ve passed off their sperm, the males drop out of the sky, dead, their only job in life accomplished. The queen then returns to the hive with the accumulated genetic material from the drones and doles it out, egg by egg, over a period of years.
One sunny day when I was inspecting my hives, I discovered something beautiful and surprising. Bees store their honey from the center of the hive outward, and as different flowers come into bloom throughout the season, the colour (and flavour) of the honey changes. So there’s this transcendent experience of lifting a frame of honeycomb up to the sun and seeing this beautiful striated rainbow on the comb, with different bands of amber and yellow and gold, each stored at as the bees returned from a different bloom.
For years, I’ve been making art with my bees. This started when I made a mistake at one point and didn’t properly space the frames in my hive. When I went in a few days later, the bees had filled the cavity with a beautiful, fresh comb. I was just amazed at how quickly they had created this intricate geometric sculpture, attaching it to whatever was nearby. That got me to thinking that I could purposely leave space for them to build comb, and perhaps put different things into the hive for them to build on, creating a sculpture in collaboration with the hive.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with having them build on a variety of objects. I started off with some knick-knacks I got at a local novelty shop: a bridge-and-groom wedding cake topper, other little figurines. I got that one out with the honeycomb and it’s hanging in my living room now.
I tried a whole dollhouse set once, but they ended up building the come so thick on it, you couldn’t make it out. But another year, I found an old antique dollhouse at a garage sale, and installed the beehive in it, skipping the traditional hive entirely. I then cut out a piece of plexiglass so, for a short spell anyway, you could look into the hive and see the bees living in this beautiful Victorian house. That one was on display at this amazing outdoor art festival, Smoke Farm, that took place over a weekend in the woods up north of Seattle. It was set in the middle of this verdant field of tall grass, this Lilliputian house with its peaks and arches and bees coming and going out the front door.
This last year, I stapled strips of programmable LEDs to slats of wood, painted them with a thin coat of beeswax so the bees would recognize the material as familiar, and then built a Kenyan top bar beehive to house them. At the end of the summer, I pulled the slats with the LEDs, now encased in honeycomb, and wired it up to an Arduino so I could program different light displays. I’m still playing around with different patterns and sequences for the LEDs, to match different moods and events.
At the end of the day, I love just sitting next to the hive on a sunny afternoon and watching the bees come and go. My advice to anyone interested in beekeeping is to just go for it. A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of being stung, or that it’s going to be some super complicated science they’ll have to learn. I’m not going to lie and say you won’t get stung (you will), but it’s really not as bad as you remember. Most of the unpleasantness of a sting comes from the surprise you usually get when it happens. A bee sting on its own isn’t so bad. And the actual work requirements are what you make them. There are certainly beekeepers who put long hours into it all throughout the summer, and I’ll bet they get a lot more honey out of their hives than I do. But I’m content to give the bees room to do their thing, and then rely on the fact that they’ve been around for millions of years without our help.
I think it is important to share our creative passions. Modern tech is a set of tools, but tools are only as good as the craftsmen who hold them. Great advances and great art come from passionate people. Anytime I can be around people doing creative work, I want to learn from them, get new ideas from them, be inspired by them. Ideas and creativity are this crazy, wonderful resource: the more you use it and share it, the more of it you have.
To check out Jordan’s company, Pathable, be sure to visit the following link: