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Bee decline, animism, and relationality with the non human world

  • Introduction

  • The Dead Earth Worldview

  • Relationality and Animism

  • Complexity, Cosmopolitics, and Ecological Thought

  • Post activism, Grieving, and Imagination


“Life on Earth has become precarious. Specifically, it is evident that we have entered into the sixth mass extinction, a process that has been triggered almost solely by human behavior (Ceballos et al., 2015; Kolbert, 2014). Even attempting to fathom the scale of loss underway might be enough to leave one “doubled up in pain” (Confino, 2014). Thus, it is perhaps not so surprising that ecological grief for the extinct and endangered is often channeled through those few species whose lives have captured public interest.” Rosamund Portus (2020). An Ecological Whodunit: The Story of Colony Collapse Disorder.

What does it look like to think with bees and to amplify their concerns and survival needs in the context of rapid decline of bee colonies around the world?

How can understanding honeybees’ crucial role as pollinators, making possible the reproduction of plants upon which we as humans - along with many other species and ecosystems - rely on to survive, be a window into a deeper understanding of our radical relationality?

How can this deeper understanding of radical relationality and interdependence inspire grief as a form of post activism, as Bayo Akomolafe speaks of, and lead us towards practices of speculative care, as Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, offers?

Rosamund Portus’ work explores extinction as a distinctly biocultural process, shaped by cultural values as much as scientific fact. In her work on colony collapse disorder amongst honeybees, she traces the complex and controversial causes of bee decline. Amongst contributing causes are disease, invasive species, parasites, pesticides, loss of habitat, monoculture, climate change, and extreme weather. An even deeper dive leads to the objectification of the nonhuman world within the modern, Western, colonial worldview.

When bees become part of agriculture, Portus says, they lose their subjecthood and agency.

In a 15 year study conducted between 2007-2022, it was found that there was a 62.5% drop in bee populations in the area being studied, with a 39% drop in species biodiversity (Harrison, 2023). It’s been estimated that 35% of the human diet comes from insect pollinated plants and honeybees are responsible for 80% of that pollination. Simply put, bees lie at the heart of our survival. Our survival is relational. It is tied to our interdependence with all other species and ecosystems.

Portus’ work explores how the slow violence leading to bee decline has encouraged a preemptive mourning of honeybee’s extinction within human society, which ultimately has led to an increased chance of survival. Today, the prognosis for bee survival is not as bad due to the work of beekeepers, showing how stories about nonhuman animals have influence. In the article, Bees, Extinction and Ambient Soundscapes: An Exploratory Environmental Communication Workshop Rosamund Portus and McGinne demonstrate that modes of communicating climate change that encourage people to participate in imaginative, creative and future-based thinking can provide an effective way to engage audiences with the topic of climate change, thus encouraging greater individual and collective action.

The Dead Earth worldview, Relationality, and Animism

Indian environmental justice activist and scholar, Vandana Shiva says the root of environmentally destructive behavior can be found in the illusion of separatism between humans and nature- explaining how the modern paradigm transformed the living Earth into dead matter in order to facilitate the industrial revolution. She refers to this modern, colonial paradigm as “the dead earth worldview” which initiated a war against the Earth and its people. Worldviews not adhering to materialist logic - perspectives that see the non-human world as having agency - are dismissed as unscientific. Shiva calls for a to move to an ecological paradigm and Earth Democracy wherein the responsibility of humans is to recognize, protect, and respect the rights of other species in our Earth family.

In exploring the agency of the nonhuman world, Marisol de la Cadena, discusses how indigenous cosmo practices such as animism are reduced to beliefs which can be discredited in comparison to the valid knowledge of the world which can only be accessed through scientific practices. Rather than seeing nature as passive entity for us to know through our scientific practices, she asks us to consider what happens when we think through animism. How can we not think or speak for the bees, but to amplify their concerns and their survival needs while also acknowledging their agency which exceeds what modernity considers to be real?

While we can’t get rid of the dead earth worldview, we can displace it and thus open up space for something different to emerge and to expand reality. What happens when we displace the imposed separation between humans and nature? How can we imagine a way of being that does not divide humans from nature and repair these severed connections? How do we displace the us/them binary and begin to see our relationships with the nonhuman world as a complex we- both together and different simultaneously?

What perspectives and knowledge, understandings, and imperatives come into focus when we look at bee decline through the lens of Africana and Indigenous knowledge systems which emphasize relationality, holism and communalism? What do indigenous knowledge systems - the vast and pluriversal otherwise of Western modernity, the repressed alterities that if we pay attention, we can sense vibrating in the earth - allow us to recover with regards to our severed connections with the nonhuman world? Escobar and de Sousa Santos have theorized that we have modern problems for which we have no modern solutions, and we therefore must begin to think from the Epistemologies of the South, cosmovisions that see humans not as separate from but as part of the Earth. Within these cosmovisions of radical relationality, nothing exists as a separate entity outside of the relationships that constitute them.

Complexity, Cosmopolitics and Ecological Thought

The type of change required to realign western culture with ecosystems of the earth needs more than just tinkering, but deep systemic change to the way we think and relate. If the mechanistic approach to the world is leading to the destruction of the planet, systems thinking points to a different way of seeing the world that is “non reductionist, complex, systemic, healthier” and is “characterized by emergent spirituality” (Duncan, 2018). The complex interconnections climate change sets up between the ecologies of mind, nature, and society “demand that we start to be able to think, feel and act in more ecologically complex forms” (Dodds, 2012). Through bearing ecological thought, we can revision the world and ourselves in non-linear ways that better reflect the “ strange ecology that swirls around us with its beautiful complexity and chaos that can show us the way out” (Dodds, 2012).

Systems thinking can allow us to re-envision and engage with a different future, and find language to develop “shared practices, interventions, and ways of working in tune with ecosystems of the earth” (Duncan, 2018). Other scholars have theorized about how eco psychological frameworks such as systems thinking and complexity theory can assist in our response to the “complex interdependent web that climate change sets up” (Dodds, 2012). Systems thinking, a form of analysis that emphasizes how problems interact in complex ways with the systems in which they were created, is a critical theory and skill in finding approaches to dealing with complex problems, such as climate change.

Given the complex causes of climate change and bee decline, our approaches will need to be responsive to this complexity. Cosmopolitics can be a framework which allows us to see our partial connections and common interests even while acknowledging our divergence and heterogeneity (De la Cadena, 2023). Cosmopolitics is a politics among pluriversal entities that all have different ways of being. For example, the bee and the orchid coming together for pollination can seen be as metaphor for these partial connections- having divergent but shared interests. How do we have different interests become common interests without erasing our differences? Just like the bee and the orchid voicing their interests in different ways, we don't have to have same interests to be in alliance.

Post-activism, grieving, and imagination

Aside from planting bee friendly gardens, avoiding pesticide use, rehabilitating local habitat, and supporting local beekeepers, what are creative approaches to addressing the issue of bee decline?

In the context of this mass extinction, Bayo Akomalafe reconceptualizes grief as an invitation - a technology of emergence. His framework of post activism is an exploration of how we take on the shape of what we resist. The goal is not to fix a broken system but to acknowledge our power to summon other worlds. He encourages us to search for different places of power, to see the intersecting crisis we are facing as generative cracks in the ongoing linear progress of modernity.

Akomolafe would encourage us to consider if the crisis of bee decline forces us into an analysis not available in the thought forms we're used. What if instead of doubling down on what we know, we investigate the hidden tensions, the generative cracks, in modernity that can allow us to go beyond what is? He would suggest that perhaps slowing down and grieving - or as Portus puts it, preemptive mourning- is itself a form of activism that can make new imaginations possible. Through creative responses to climate change, we can decenter the human, ally with nonhuman agencies, and open to new senses.

The work of post-activism allows us to open categories by exploring the unthinkable. De la Cadena encourages us to think about the ways we think that prevent us from thinking. What ways of thinking have we inherited that make us say a mountain is only a mountain, a bee is only a bee and not a relative, and that mountains and bees can’t have their own agency within the processes of future making? In order to displace the categories that make something impossible, we must speculate. To speculate is an attitude of imagining. The attitude of imagining requires us to invent tools to imagine that which our categories of thought make very difficult to imagine. The care of the possible demands pragmatic and artful ways to open up the future.


Akomolafe, B. (2021) Archetypal Psychology Recorded Lecture. Pacifica Graduate Institute.

De la Cadena, M. Critical Topics in Ecopsychology Lecture. Pacifica Graduate Institute. Santa Barbara, California. 6/5/23.

De Sousa Santos, B. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide. Routledge.

Dodds, J. (2012). Psychoanalysis and ecology at the edge of chaos: Complexity theory, Deleuze, Guattari and psychoanalysis for a climate in crisis. Routledge.

Duncan, R. (2018). Nature in mind: Systemic thinking and imagination in ecopsychology and mental health. Routledge.

Escobar, A. (2016). Thinking-feeling with the Earth. Revista de Antropologia.

Portus, R., & McGinn, C. (2019). Bees, extinction and ambient soundscapes: an exploratory environmental communication workshop. Humanities, 8(3), 153.

Portus, R. (2020). An Ecological Whodunit: The Story of Colony Collapse Disorder. society & animals, 1(aop), 1-19.

Puig de la Bellacasa María. (2017). Matters of care : speculative ethics in more than human worlds. University of Minnesota Press.

Shiva, V. (2005). Earth democracy: justice, sustainability, and peace. Cambridge, Mass., South End Press.

Harrison, M. (2023) Bad News: Bees are dying at a shocking rate. Futurism.

Wood, F. Critical Topics in Indigenous Psychologies. Pacifica Graduate Institute. Santa Barbara, California. 5/10/23.


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