Each book expresses the damage that humans have inflicted on bees. From pesticides to monoculture, humankind has changed the natural world to the detriment of pollinators and so many species. One theme that all of the books, except maybe "The Bees," explored, is that bees are now in a fragile state that requires human intervention. The idea that we are the reason for bees' borderline extinction and at the same time are likely the only reason European honey bees still exist in North America has been on my mind. I believe that's a big reason why the bee problem is so difficult. Not only do we depend on bees, but in many ways bees now depend on us. It feels like we've taken honeybees hostage and they have now become dependent on us. If we were to give up large-scale beekeeping, honeybees may not survive. Our honeybee industry and almond industries demand that we do things at a large scale.
I feel selfish sometimes when I think about the alternatives. The ecosystem overall would be better off without monoculture and huge almond farms and travelling honeybees that spread parasites and disease. However, that alternative would mean little to no honey, and a much smaller supply of almonds, at least in the short term. I personally don't want to be unable to afford honey or almond products. But it feels selfish to choose those products over long-term sustainability. There are so many cultural foods that use honey or almonds. I think about never having my grandma's favorite foods she would share with us from her Greek culture. Baklava and honey cookies are family traditions, and they bring comfort and joy. There is something very special about honey, and it would be very hard to give it up. It is unclear what the best way forward is. I believe it is possible to restructure our society and our agriculture, but change is difficult when people's short term livelihoods and food are on the line.
I'm trying not to feel hopeless, and I think a lot of these books bring some hope. But the deeper I get, the less obvious the solutions are. Each solution has effects that will hurt someone or something in some way. The key is to prioritize solutions that cause minimal damages to human and nonhuman life. This means not maximizing profits in many scenarios. Our capitalistic and individualistic society makes that choice counterintuitive. However, I have hope that people are moving towards doing what's best for the world rather than what's best for themselves.
My group started our ideation process with a lot of goals in mind: protecting from mites, limiting pesticide effects, and increasing access to pollen/nectar. Our prototype then included a lot of improvements designed to tackle one of each of the goals. For example, we created antennae to sense pesticides and larger wings to fly farther distances. We then discussed with the class, and found that our improvements contained unintended consequences, such as the bees not getting enough pollen and nectar when they avoid pesticides. The prototyping process was a great way to play with what types of modifications would be possible and how different components could fit with the basic bee structure. Discussing our broad goals and ideas also helped us to see the potential benefits of narrowing our scope.
We decided to focus in on the issue of the varroa mite parasite. Doing this allowed us to choose modifications that could work in harmony with each other. We chose to add mite-sensing antennae, a scorpion tail stinger, larger wings, and a metal armor coating. One example of these modifications working together is the antennae and the scorpion tail. In our low-fidelity prototype, we had a larger stinger and antennae that would sense pesticides. The stinger could help them attack mites, but without increased ability to sense them, it didn't add much value. The scorpion tail and the mite-sensors allow the bee to first sniff out any mites on themselves or others, and the scorpion tail increases their ability to reach and precisely sting the mites. Focusing on one goal allowed us to decrease the amount of unnecessary unintended consequences, and better equip our design for success.
I learned a lot during this project about the many tools for prototyping and making. I was proud of our group for figuring out how to use the tools that none of us had ever used before like 3D printers and laser cutters. I am inspired to use these skills for other projects and hobbies of mine.
Interview With an Innovator
Kate Forer is an artist at the University of Wisconsin graduate school in Madison. Her art explores concepts of evolutionary biology, and much of it can be described as arts based research.
I've known Kate for a long time -since kindergarten- and I have seen first hand the way she innovates through art. Her scientific mind allows her to deftly explore scientific theories and concepts. Throughout her undergraduate career at Southern Illinois University, she produced a series of sculptures made using the golden venture origami technique.
10 Excerpts from the paper sculpture series by Kate Forer
Kate described the behavioral concept she is now focusing on:
"Recently, I've been interested in evolutionary psychology as a research for my art, and I've been doing a lot of reading…And I've been reading about how humans evolved to have these needs that we need to fulfill -You need nutrition, you need sleep, you need security, all of those things- And how how they can really be distorted into addictions and problematic things."
In addition to changing concepts, Kate has changed mediums. I asked her about this in relation to innovation and her personal growth.
"Well, I think fibers naturally tie into coziness...But I also switched media so drastically from working strongly in paper to strongly in fibers because I got so burnt out on paper over the pandemic....and it's like, 'God, I kind of never want to do this again.' And I'm not sure if that's true....But I really needed a change, especially when coming to grad school. I think it's important when making art to think about change, because you don't necessarily want to always be doing the same thing. You want to grow, particularly in an environment like grad school, where you're trying to push yourself to do something different."
By Kate Forer
In this conversation about growth, I asked if there is a piece that particularly pushed her out of her comfort zone. She responded:
"I'm working on pushing my boundaries a little bit, you know, not so much that I'm hurting myself with re-traumatizing, because I think that's something a lot of artists tend to do when they're pushing their boundaries. But I made a series [with] a....mask that was a series of points that covered my head and documented myself in the bath crouched over in a bubble wigging out, and I think it didn't feel that hard to do, but....thinking about your body in that way and putting it out there is inherently very challenging.
I think vulnerability is something that's very challenging in art, and also avoiding oversharing because you don't particularly want to trauma dump on your audience, you know, yeah."
Kate standing by one of her sculptures - 2018
These sculptures capture a likeness of flora and fauna of the natural world without being direct representations of them. This probing of evolutionary biology through art is an innovative approach. She changed shapes, colors, types of paper, and scale to capture new ideas about the subject.
Kate is unafraid of making even bigger changes, as she has done in her first semester of grad school this fall. "[With the paper sculptures,] I was looking at purely formal qualities of creatures like what do they look like....and now I'm kind of interested in how they behave," Kate says.
Crocheted cone sculpture by Kate Forer
I was interested to hear that burnout was one of the driving forces for her innovating new approaches to her art. I asked for her thoughts on burnout and whether the fear or experience of burnout is a driving force for innovation. She told me, "I think on one hand, some people might innovate in order to avoid burnout or to circumvent burnout because trying new things is really a good solution. On the other hand, I think there are some people who probably tried to innovate so hard that they do burn out -where they're trying so hard to do something new and figure out the next new thing, but this newness just wrecks them."
Kate described ways that grad school has helped her progress her work and she expressed that one of her professors inspired her to make the cone sculpture above. When asked about the concept of where ideas come from and to what extent others help her innovate, she said, "I think art especially can't exist in a vacuum. You can't sit in a room a dark room and never talk to anyone and come up with good ideas. I think you're constantly taking stuff from other people and taking stuff from the world and processing that into your own experience."
Sausage links by Kate Forer
By Kate Forer
Kate's work reinforces a lot of what we've been learning in class about arts based research and biological design. The intersection of art and science is something that can help us tackle the big, "wicked" problems of our world. Breaking down psychological or biological concepts through art helps people to associate deeper, personal feelings with problems that would otherwise seem to be purely science's domain.
Kate's art is ever-changing and always either tackling new ideas and concepts or delving deep into ideas. I consider her to be a remarkable innovator and thus wanted to know what her personal definition of innovation is. Her definition encapsulates it nicely:
"[Innovation is to] be doing something or thinking about something in a way that was different from what you had been previously conditioned to do."
Final Project Documentation
The final project was probably my favorite project for this class. I really enjoyed being able to delve deeper on one project. Our group had a good amount of time to brainstorm and narrow in on the problem we most wanted to solve in relation to bees. This problem was monoculture. All of us felt that this issue was one of the most challenging ones. This gave the potential solutions we considered a lot of potential for solving other related problems. We started talking about the hanging gardens of Babylon, and got inspired to design an urban vertical farm. This problem would address food deserts while reducing the quantity of food needed to be shipped into cities from monocultured farms.
I enjoyed the hypothetical nature of this project, as it allowed us to get really creative with our ideation process. We talked about a variety of ideas that intrigued us including drone bees and a misinformation campaign against almond consumption. We knew our ideas weren’t all feasible, and it was freeing to think in those extremes.
The biggest takeaway I had from this project was that a team with a mix of disciplines is much more interesting and engaging to work with than a team with no mix. Liz is an interior design major, Brad computer science, Alex biomedical engineering, and I am environmental engineering. I loved hearing everyone’s ideas of how our project relates to each person’s field and the things they’ve learned. For example, Liz brought her knowledge from her historical architecture class in our conversations about the value of restoring and repurposing old buildings. In the creation of our deliverables, everyone used their different skills. Brad and I did the research for the content of the poster and video. Alex had some amazing video production skills, and Liz was vital in the design and construction of the building model. I also enjoyed using my creative skills to design interior details like the café furniture and market produce stands. I will carry this experience with me in future projects and jobs and strive to create diverse, multi-disciplinary team.
Though this class falls under the “ENED” category, it was a welcome change in comparison to much of my other engineering courses. I often find myself starved for creative expression. The day in class when we traced and drew bee anatomy with ink and paintbrushes, it hit me that I could not remember the last time I had held a paintbrush or drew for fun. The mix of art and science was even more fulfilling than what I had hoped it would be. I have taken non-engineering courses before, which have been enriching in a similar way. However, the fact that this course was both relevant to my field while challenging my creative and artistic side made it extremely valuable and enjoyable. I chose the final project as my sample because I was extremely proud of the way our group worked together and brought our diverse skills to the project.
As for the subject matter of the bees, I was vaguely familiar with the issue of bees dying, but I did not know nearly as much as I do now. Now, I find myself talking about the issues with my friends. I have become more conscious about the honey I buy, and I am preparing to plant native wildflowers this spring. These things seem minor, but this class taught me that even just talking about these issues and practicing the art of designing solutions can be powerful.