Ecologies of Empire: On the New Uses of the Honeybee

Peer Reviewed


This essay examines the rise of the honeybee as a tool and metaphor in the U.S. “war on terror.” At present, the largest source of funding for apiary research comes from the U.S. military as part of efforts to remake entomology in an age of empire. This funding seeks to make new generations of bees sensitive to specific chemical traces—everything from plastic explosives, to the tritium used in nuclear weapons development, to land mines. Moreover, in an explicit attempt to redesign modern battlefield techniques, the Pentagon has returned to the form and metaphor of the “swarm” to combat what it takes to be the unpredictability of the enemy in the war on terror. At the same time, honeybee colonies are collapsing. Rethinking material assemblages of bees and humans in the war on terror, this essay moves beyond the constrained logic and limited politics of many epidemiological investigations of colony collapse. Honeybees are situated within a more expansive understanding of the role of and consequences for the animal in modern empire building.

"Honeybees." November 2010 via Jake Kosek.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published other essays on militarization and its cultural and technological effects. See, for example, Joseph Masco's “'Survival is Your Business': Engineering Ruins and Affect in Nuclear America” (2008), Daniel Hoffman's “The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities” (2007), Joseph Masco's “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post–Cold War New Mexico” (2004), and Lesley Gill's “Creating Citizens, Making Men: The Military and Masculinity in Bolivia” (1997).

About the Author

Jake Kosek is assistant professor of Geography at UC Berkeley. He is coauthor of Race, Nature and the Politics of Difference (Duke University Press, 2003), which explores the intersections of critical theories of race and nature, and author of Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico (Duke University Press, 2006), an ethnography that examines the cultural politics of nature, race, and nation amid violent struggles over forests in northern New Mexico. Understories received the John Hope Franklin Book Award for the Best Book in American Studies. Jake's current research builds on this past work on nature, politics and difference, using conceptual insights from anthropology, science studies and theories of history to develop new approaches to natural history as both an object of critical inquiry and a conceptual tool. Through fine-grained, multi-sited ethnography and detailed archival research, this project examines manifestations of natural history in the present, exploring contemporary taxonomies and varieties of nature, charting their resonance and discord with fossilized formations of prior natures. This includes: a social political history of the swarm, exploring how the flow of knowledge between bees and human collective behavior has remade discourses of modern citizenship and populations; an exploration of the biopolitics of criminality, weaving 18th- and 19th-century concepts of nature into contemporary bio-political discourses of law, race and justice; and a natural history of nanotechnology, tracing the history and politics of scale from scala naturae, one of the oldest hierarchical ordering of natures, to the contemporary political and cultural contexts that underlie scientific quests to remake the order of modern nature at the nanoscale.

"Jake Kosek." November 2010 via Jake Kosek.


(1:10: "Honeybees are nature's rugged robots")

Relevant Reading

Arquilla, John and David Ronfeldt. Swarming and the Future of Conflict. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2000.

Rand Corporation, "Swarming and the Future of Conflict." 2000.

Editorial Overview

In the November 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Jake Kosek examines the rise of the honeybee as both tool and metaphor in the United States “war on terror” through multi-sited and multi-species ethnography.  He defines the project as a “political entomology” – and, more broadly, a critical natural history – sensitive to the dynamic and entangled relationships between humans and bees over time.  These relationships, Kosek argues, are multidirectional: projects of human empire like agribusiness and warfare have shaped the bee itself, altering its physiology and social life, while bees themselves have been enrolled in empire building projects, actively participating in reshaping human life.  Drawing on interviews with scientists and other materials, Kosek’s essay shows how bees have served as material, metaphor, and model for recent US military projects under the Bush and Obama administrations.  The bee, it turns out, has been identified as particularly useful for espionage and anti-terrorism purposes.  For example, they have been trained to forage for landmines rather than food.  Meanwhile, bees’ collective behavior – especially “swarming” – has been increasingly recognized by military strategists as a useful model for the forms of flexible, adaptive, collective responses desired in decentralized modern warfare.

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