Climate change is a complex topic that needs serious and urgent discussion to incite action. However, it’s a subject which may be difficult for some to engage with. JCU Bachelor of Arts Honours student, Caitlin Kelly, aims to elevate the topic of climate change into a realm which makes engagement easier: fiction. In her Honours thesis short story, The Telling of the Bees, Caitlin guides her readers through a structured exploration of climate change, climate grief, and bees.
For her thesis – a short story accompanied by an exegesis – Caitlin chose to write an idea that she’s held onto for nearly two years. The concept is a multi-faceted one which allows Caitlin to craft a statement about climate change on several levels. The main level, though, is the notion of climate grief. “A lot of my project deals with this concept of climate grief and the mental health strain that is put on people because of climate change,” explains Caitlin. “I wanted to explore my own pessimistic outlook on climate within my piece of fiction.”
Some health professionals call this notion of mental strain caused by the state of the climate and the environment ecological grief. Caitlin describes it as a psychological response. “The concept of climate grief is relatively new, and it is an attempt to put a name to the psychological effect of climate change on the public. It’s the anxiety and the fear that climate change evokes in a lot of people,” says Caitlin.
Caitlin notes two aspects of discussion around climate change that may make it difficult to engage with, the first being inaction. “Climate change is a serious issue and it is very frustrating to hear conversations about it and see such political inactivity,” she says. The second is distance. “A big part of my exegesis looks at how it can be difficult to consider climate change in all of its parts, especially because it is so physically removed from us,” Caitlin explains. “As an Australian, so many of the big, disastrous elements of climate change happen so far away from us. That distance can make it hard to fully engage with the issue because we don’t feel the urgency as keenly as people in other areas. A big part of the purpose of my thesis is to bring the issue of climate change onto a more personal level where we can engage with it.”
So, now we understand Caitlin’s take on climate grief. But where do the bees come in?
“Telling the bees is a European folklore practice that involves telling bees about the important events in their keeper’s life,” Caitlin explains. “My project explores the mourning element of the practice. It involves draping the hives in mourning cloth and softly speaking to the bees, telling them about the person who has passed away.”
This practice is the main feature in Caitlin’s story, which is set after a series of climate disasters cause human society to collapse, and follows a scientist trapped in a seed-bank style bunker designed to preserve bee populations from extinction. The scientist, Melissa, begins the ritual of telling the bees, mourning the loss of not only her fellow scientists’ lives, but also the death of the world outside.
Bees are connected to climate change beyond being listeners to Melissa’s mourning, though.
The existence of bees is greatly threatened by changes in the climate. Bees are highly susceptible to disease brought by certain mites and gut parasites, which thrive in the increased temperatures harboured by climate change. Bees are also suffering from climate-driven habitat loss, an issue that has resulted in bee territories in North America and Europe shrinking by nearly 200 miles (321km). Climate change also affects bees’ abilities to pollinate, as changes in the environment mean that flowers change their scents and seasons change their timing, resulting in bees possibly mistiming pollination or not pollinating the flowers they encounter. These changes have resulted in a serious decline in bees; researchers reported in 2016 that honeybee keepers lost 44 per cent of their colonies in the last year.
Why does this matter to us? Because bees are responsible for much of our livelihood. For Australia, it’s estimated that honey bee pollination contributes four to six billion to our economy. Bees are also essential to food production. Without insect pollination, a third of the food we eat is jeopardised, and our society, in turn, is also jeopardised.
Caitlin sees the situation with the bees as having inherent duality. “Bees are simultaneously framed as essential to ecosystem survival and also the greatest threat to its destruction if they become extinct,” she says. “My project explores the twin symbology of bees, both in their modern and folkloric connotations, and how it can be used to facilitate greater emotional engagement with the issue of climate change.”
At the heart of Caitlin’s project, though, is humanity.
“Fiction can provide a space to explore topics that we struggle to engage with,” says Caitlin. “My work uses creative practice to test the potential of the climate fiction short story to emotionally engage and orient readers with the issue of climate change.”
Are you interested in how you can use the arts to engage with important topics and issues? Consider what you can do with JCU Arts and Social Sciences.
Want to know what all the buzz is about? Check out an excerpt from Caitlin’s piece, The Telling of the Bees:
Melissa gravitated towards the hives, not bothering to put on her suit. Early on, when the university still had resources allocated to making the scientists comfortable, she had personally insisted they install a wrought iron bench, nestled among the flowerbeds, so she could sit and watch the bees. She’d brought a crochet blanket with her on her first trip. It was faded now, with threads coming loose, and she picked at one as she nursed her coffee. Unlike the rest of the bunker, the air was alive. The hum of APOSLE’s machinery could not match the natural sound of the bees as they filled the air around Melissa’s seat. She watched as they settled on the flowers, moving with such determined purpose, oblivious to her presence.
‘I missed you little guys,’ she said, as much to the bees as to herself.
‘I am glad you are back safe, Melissa,’ APOSLE crackled from one of the ceiling speakers.
‘The last hive at the university campus died while I was away,’ she told the AI, staring into her cup, ‘These hives might be the last healthy ones left in the country.’
‘I will not let these hives die, Melissa,’ APOSLE hummed. ‘It is my purpose to protect them.’
‘It’s our purpose,’ said Melissa, smiling up at the blinking yellow light of the camera.
A bee settled on her hand, crawling towards her coffee. Melissa picked it up, careful not to let it sting her, and placed it on the bright face of a flower. The blossom bobbed as the insect crawled into its soft yellow heart, pollen clinging to its fur like gold dust.
Feature image: Shutterstock