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On Bees and Humans - A Love Affair between Nature and Culture

                               Interdisciplinary symposium - B CUBE // TU Dresden

                              Evening event - Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden


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Bees and humans have a longstanding relationship stretching back to the Stone Age. Since antiquity, bees have fascinated philosophers, scientists and poets alike - not only as honey producers but also because of their peculiar form of social life in a colony; they react like a superorganism. Because of their efficient division of labour and their - at least from a human perspective - collective sense of purpose, bees are regarded as paragons of, and companions to, human beings. They are, both part of nature, medium and yet also a role model of societal organization and exchange with nature.

Bee research has always transgressed systematic and disciplinary boundaries. Yet the progressive specialization of modern science not only produces insights but also erects communication hurdles. This creates the impression not only that every discourse has its own language to talk about bees but that, in fact, each produces its own concept and model of bees.

With this day-long (9:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.) symposium at TU Dresden´s B CUBE, we want to provide a forum for a variety of perspectives on ‘bee’ and enable open exchange amongst proponents. The goal is to bring current scholarly and academic research together and into dialogue about ‘their’ bees. This promises to advance a debate that is characterized by misinformation and political instrumentalization (keyword: honey bee colony losses). We invited the following researchers to present their work on bees and how this work or the bees themselves touch upon relationships between culture and nature.

  • PD Dr. Michael Ohl (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin) studies the species diversity and evolution of stinging insects on a worldwide scale, with a focus on solitary wasps. As a trained philosopher and historian of science, he is also fascinated by the conceptual, historical and cultural foundations of the taxonomic discovery of species diversity and the exploration of the natural world.
  • Eline D. Tabak (Bristol University/Bath Spa University) studies creative and scientific narratives of insect declines, paying particular attention to how these storytelling practices reflect upon questions of care and (in)attention regarding wildlife. Before this she worked with emperical ecocriticism at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. For her, honey bees in particular are an interesting case study not only because of their ecological importance, but especially because of their status in the global cultural imagination when it comes to wildlife decline.
  • Dr. Eva Johach (Universität Konstanz) investigates bees from the perspective of the cultural history of science. She is interested in bees as models of sociological thought in a broad sense, covering different disciplinary and non-disciplinary fields of knowledge. As she has shown in her habilitation, references to social insects (bees, ants, termites) have often inspired and influenced thinking about the social. As patterns of collective organization, they became a conceptual and phantasmatic resource for reflecting on the non-rational, reproductive, or collective-psychological foundations of modern human societies: society in the mirror of the insect.
  • Dr. Georges Felten (Deutsches Seminar, Universität Zürich) investigates the polymorphous relationships of prose and poetry in German literary Realism (1850-1900) in his project 'Diskrete Dissonanzen' (Descrete Dissonances). He looks at bees as central (poetological) actants in Theodor Storms writings and explores their buzzing and rootling as activities which help creating 'precarious idylls'.
  • Dr. Fabio Manfredini is a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Holloway University of London. Fabio is interested in how social behaviour in animals has evolved and how it is regulated in the brain. He uses honey bees as model system because they have evolved one of the most elaborated communication systems in the animal kingdom, the waggle dance. With the waggle dance, honey bees can share information about the location and profitability of a food site or a new home with other members of the colony. In his current research project, Fabio is trying to characterise the molecular processes that regulate the complex behaviour in the honey bee brain.
  • Prof. Dr. Peter Neumann (Universität Bern) is director of the Institute of Bee Health and president of the global COLOSS association (prevention of honey bee COLony LOSSes). The co-evolution between bees and their pathogens has fascinated Peter since his childhood. In the social bees, infection outcome is not only governed by individual bee-pathogen interactions, but also by social immunity, common efforts of the colony to overcome disease. While we still only understand parts of the whole, amazing story, co-evolution is often disrupted by invasive species, thereby causing major problems for bee health (and beekeepers...) and calling for more efforts to understand the very basic mechanisms of bee health.
  • Prof. Dr. Dalial Freitak (Universität Graz) studies how insect mothers are preparing their babies to fight off diseases. Using various methods, she tracks the transfer of immunological signals in the beehive and examines the function of the major egg yolk protein - Vitellogenin - in this important task. Dalial is also involved in trying to transfer basic research results into more applied settings and helping to fight against insect and pollinator losses.

Participation in the symposium (in English) is free of charge but prior registration until 30th September 2019 via email to beesymposiummailbox.tu-dresdende is necessary.


The symposium will be concluded by an evening event (7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.), titled „Die Schattenseiten des Bienenstaats“ (The Dark Side of the Hive) at Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden. Prof. Dr. Christian Pirk (Entomology - Pretoria, South Africa) and Prof. Dr. Niels Werber (Cultural and Media Studies - Siegen) will question the myth of the efficient hive and the industrious bee from a scientific and a scholarly perspective respectively.

  • Prof. Dr. Christian Pirk is a Professor in the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria and a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa. His main research focus is on social insects, using a multi-disciplinary approach by combining mathematics, chemistry, behavioural studies, population analysis and molecular ecology. He looks at reproductive division of labour in social insects, especially honey bees and the resulting potential conflicts among members of an insect colony and the role of chemical ecology in resolving these conflicts. He investigates also self-organisation in social insects, like answering questions on how do bees make hexagonal cells and how mistakes by the bees tell us about the underlying mechanisms following the approach exceptions prove the rules.
  • Prof. Dr. Niels Werber (*1965) holds the chair of New German Literature at the University of Siegen. He authored the monographic study "Ant Societies" (Frankfurt: Fischer) and several high-ranking papers on insect societies (ants, bees, termites) as forms of societal self-descriptions and its poetological and discursive functions in literature and culture.

The evening event (in German) will take place at the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden and is also free of charge.



Dr. Anja Buttstedt (B CUBE - Center for Molecular Bioengineering) investigates why royal jelly turns ‘normal’ worker bees into queens. Researching major royal jelly proteins (MRJPs) of the honeybee, Anja deciphers the functions of these still mysterious proteins. These are fascinatingly flexible regarding, for example, viscosity and fluidity and revealed early on that they are much more than mere food stuff. The adaptability and versatility of not only the bee’s behavior but also their products fascinates her as much as the history of bee research itself.

contact: anja.buttstedttu-dresdende

Dr. Solvejg Nitzke (Literary and Cultural Studies/ Institut für Germanistik) explores relationships of humans and nature from a literary and cultural studies perspective in her project on ‘Precarious Nature’ in 19th-century popular cultures and her work in the emerging field of literary and cultural plant studies. Bees, for her, are impressively protean figures in cultural ecology – featuring in writings ranging from political theory, gardening advice and apocalyptic scenarios of planet Earth’s future.

contact: solvejg.nitzketu-dresdende

Funded by TU Dresden's Institutional Strategy 'The Synergetic University' financed by the Excellence Initiative of the German Federal and State Governments.