Mark Winston takes decades of studying the social life of bees and turns it into illuminating prose and constructive communication
Mark L. Winston’s Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive is the culmination of nearly four decades of researching nature’s unassuming yet indispensible workhorse: the honeybee. In the book, we find the SFU professor reflecting on the awe-inspiring wisdom he has gleaned from the highly social insect, including the importance of communication and collaboration and insights on how to design more sustainable workplaces and cities. The jury which selected Bee Time as 2015’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction has said the book “inspires us to reevaluate our own relationships both with each other and the natural world.”
The Ohio-born entomologist (by way of marine biology–he realized he preferred to work on land) joined SFU’s Biological Sciences department in 1980. Soon after, he opened a bee lab, nurtured colonies, and researched how to best raise the pollinators in BC. He also began a fruitful collaboration with late SFU chemist Keith Slessor, one that led to the identification of key components of biochemical messages the queen bee uses to communicate with her hive. The pair patented a synthesized version of one of these pheromones in 1991, a feat that garnered them an Award of Distinction from the Manning Awards Foundation. Commercial products based on the patent are still in use by the beekeeping industry to improve agricultural yields and profits.
By the mid-2000s, bees were a regular feature in the news: it was becoming impossible to ignore colony collapse disorder, the mysterious and massive decimation of the world’s bee population. Winston was one of the first experts to be consulted for commentary. He and his colleagues have speculated the cause to be a perfect storm of disease, declining wild flower diversity and availability, the stresses of domestication, and the cocktails of pesticides used in many agricultural activities. In a New York Times op-ed, he identified the core lesson for humans to take away from this situation: we need more research to identify the impact of low-level pesticide exposure on human health.
In 2006, the insect communication expert hung up his beekeeper’s hat, shut down his lab, and began his next chapter as director and mentor at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue, a partnership with government, business and community which aims to explore critical issues impacting wellbeing. The expert in insect communication wanted to apply what he had learned from bees to help others become more effective communicators. He explains, “Dialogue and apiaries feel the same to me: I become fully present, time slows down, and I focus on both what is being said and on what is not said. And, being a researcher was always as much about teaching as it was about the data, so this never seemed like a radical transition to me.”
However, out of all his life’s pursuits, Winston has found the craft of writing to bring him the most satisfaction: he has authoured seven books and regularly posts to his blog “The Hive.” He has said that the act of constructing the perfect sentence puts him on “bee time”: a present, absorbed, and meditative state of mind not unlike his experience when communing with bees.
Dr. Mark L. Winston is professor of Biological Sciences and senior Fellow at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue. His work on killer bees, honeybee behaviour, pollination, and pheromones has led to many important findings for basic science as well as useful products for pest management and agriculture. His many honours include: the Manning Award for Innovation, the Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, the British Columbia Gold Medal in Science and Engineering, the Eve Savory Award for Science Communication, the Michael Smith Award for Science Promotion, a Killam Fellowship from the Canada Council, and election as a Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada.
Q & A with Mark L. Winston
What motivates you as a researcher?
I learned early on in my scientific career that a carefully constructed question coupled with hard research work could reveal things about the world around us that no one had known before. My strongest motivation is probably to teach and mentor and research provides the perfect platform with which to help students grow into who they want to be in the world.
How has your research made an impact in our lives?
I'd like to think our research inspired a closer attention to the importance of bees in our environment, and through that stimulated contemplation about how we humans also depend on the environment around us. More specifically, I hope that bees are a bit better off because of the work we've done, better managed and living in healthier ecosystems, which if so will also improve the human condition.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
It’s absolutely key. Since coming to SFU 35 years ago, I can't think of a single project that did not depend on collaboration. Almost all my papers are co-authored, and deservedly so, because the research was a product of collegial interaction more than just my own capacities. But all life is like that: when working together we are so much more than when we are alone.