Dying out of bees

A case study of the dying out of bees (Apis mellifera) in the walloon region (Belgium)

Classified under Case Studies (Dying out of bees), Mapping Approaches (Public engagement, Professional outreach), Tools Applied (Risk cartography, Debategraph), Users (Academics, Issue professionals, Journalists, Decision-makers), Styles Of Inquiry (Opening black boxes), Visualizations (Debate map, Argumentation landscape), Controversy Types (Risk, Polarized), Data Management (Assembling stakeholders), Conceptual (Very existence of controversies)


The objective of our research was to evaluate, through an experiment, the feasibility of collective and interactive elaboration of a cartography in relation to an environmental controversy, the elaboration to be carried out by the protagonists themselves with the aid of communicators and a mapping technical support. The questions underlying this experiment were: how to share the positions, arguments and things at stake associated with protagonists in a controversy, with an eye toward rendering the various aspects of the controversy visible to a wider public? Would this kind of display make a difference to the protagonists? And at what levels?

We chose as case study the case of the dying out of bees in the Walloon Region.

Presentation of case study


Beekeepers have detected abnormally high mortality and a general weakening of honeybee colonies for more than the last ten years. In Europe people talk of a “die-off” (dépérissement in French) or “meltdown”, while in the US the term “Colony Collapse Disorder” or CCD has been coined. France was the first country to sound the alarm, doing so in 1995. It was followed by a series of European countries (Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, and so on) and others elsewhere (USA, Canada, Argentina, and so on). Many possible explanations have been proposed, not without creating controversy amongst the various parties concerned by the problem. According to the studies that have been carried out and continue to be conducted, the phenomenon seems to be due to many causes.

Symptoms of the honeybee die-off

Major dysfunction of the colony’s development cycle is what has been ascertained these past few years. In recent years hives have regularly been found to be empty in the spring, with practically no bees in the hive and no corpses on the hive’s floor. This is what beekeepers call the “empty hive syndrome”. It also happens that the hive is normally dynamic in the spring and develops normally, then suddenly collapses. Beekeepers have also noticed “a gradual but significant loss of forager bees” at the height of the foraging season and an abnormally high death rate at the end of the season and over the wintering period. Other forms of dysfunction, notably in the bees’ behaviour, are also seen: Some individuals are disoriented, which can explain why bees “vanish” without leaving corpses (the foragers simply fail to find their way back to the hive); the hive’s internal organization is upset; the queens’ renewal rate is abnormally high (every six months, whereas a queen bee lives three years on average and can live up to five years); whole colonies disappear although they leave well-stocked larders behind, and so on. According to beekeepers, these dysfunctional events do not resemble the symptoms of the disorders that traditionally affect their bees. While beekeepers have known hard times in the past (varroasis epidemics, for example), they have never seen their bees die off at such a rate (CARI 2003). The death rates of Western honeybees are usually situated between 8 and 10% of the colonies per year but this level has been greatly exceeded in a number of countries in the past few years. The situation does, however, vary greatly from one country to the next and from one year to the next in the same country, and even in a given region (HAUBRUGE and NGUYEN et al., 2006).

What about Belgian public policy on this issue?

In Belgium the first observations of the dying out of bees date from 1999. In 2001, the risk posed by an insecticide-laced variety of corn, Gaucho® (the insecticide tabbed as one of the potential causes of honeybees’ mortalities in Belgium) was re-evaluated by the committee on phyto-sanitation standards (Federal Public Services (SPF) for Public Health, Food Security and the Environment), and was declared harmless. Following studies commissioned by the Agriculture Ministry to be carried out by the Apiculture Centre for Research and Information (CARI), and then with the involvement of the functional and evolutionary entomology unit of the University Faculty of Agronomic Sciences of Gembloux (FUSAGx), the SPF for Public Health established in 2005 a joint working group to study the problem. Included in this were the principal actors in the Walloon Region and Belgium: the FUSAGx, the University of Ghent (U Gent), the CARI centre, Bayer Crop Science? Belgium, the SPF for Public Health, the Federal Agency for Food Security (AFSCA), the Walloon Centre for Agronomic Research (CRA-W), the Walloon Agriculture Federation (FWA), and some environmental NGOs.

This “bee group” concluded its reflections in June 2007 without agreement or consensus as regarded the pesticide problem. But in 2008, after four years of study, the entomology unit of the FUSAGx concluded that the active substance found in Gaucho®, imidacloprid, was not responsible for the losses of colonies in Wallonia, and suggested that a parasite, the Acarian Varroa destructor was indeed the primary cause. Certain agencies such as the CARI centre continued to support the pesticide hypothesis regarding the causes of colonies’ losses. The “bee group” opined that the results of the studies carried out at the behest of the collective were not satisfactory. Many forms of frustration and tension emerged from these meetings. The working group had only been given a limited warrant to investigate, and its exploratory work was essentially intended to inform the appropriate ministry.

Our experiment began at this impasse point. Our purpose was to evaluate to what degree a mapping tool (the Debategraph) displaying the controversy in a graphic manner could help us place in discussion and share the elements of the controversy, first among a group of stakeholders, practitioners and communicators, and then with a wider but limited public.


How should the controversy be mapped so as to facilitate its understanding in the public sphere?

Our experiment thus consisted of a mapping of the bees’ controversy by using the Debategraph as technical support. The experiment involved four main objectives: to bring together a group composed of actors directly involved in the problem (stakeholders and practitioners) and communicators (1) with whom we would work on mapping with the Debategraph, regarding the “matters of fact” and above all the “matters of concern” (Latour, 2005) associated with the controversy (2), intending later to present this mapping to a wider public (3) – all of which would require participants, members of the working group and external users, to learn how to use the Debategraph (4).

Each of the interests represented in the group played a well-defined role: the exercise that we asked stakeholders to engage in consisted in making their positions public for all concerned citizens – an exercise they were not used to, since they were more accustomed to exchanging opinions behind closed doors as part of the work of commissions named by political or administrative authorities, opinions intended for the ears of decision-makers only. So they were displaced from the normal framework of their operation – and this, intentionally, since the goal of the experiment was not to feed a decision-making procedure with arguments, but to evaluate the social and political relevance of a web tool like Debategraph as a means of “flattening out” a controversy of scientific and/or technical nature. The group also included “practitioners” who were in the group to testify to their practices and experiences, and communicators who were ready to clarify the debate in terms intended for public consumption. We held three meetings of the group in a period of two months: workshops, each of which constituted a step forward in the course of the experiment. The first workshop announced the beginning of the experimentation, and this was a matter of facilitating contacts among members of the group and recalling the project’s objectives, creating a starter map and introducing the group to the Debategraph. The second workshop announced that the map would be exhibited to a larger group: after feedback from the group concerning the first month of using Debategraph; the question was to discuss modalities of opening up the mapping. The third and final workshop ended the experiment by going over the opening up of the mapping, and discussing the experimentation as a whole.

The essential point of the first phase of our experimentation was to bring about the emergence of important issues (especially “matters of concern”) in the view of the group, through the use of two techniques: a brainstorming fresco, and a metaplan. Communicators played an essential role in this exercise because they generated three types of questioning: a) “classic” questions, obvious ones, which might not appear on the mapping if only stakeholders were involved, since one level of questions involves things they all know, although everyone else does not; b) more “original” questions, that might not have arisen from the scientific community but were no less pertinent outside of it; and finally, “impertinent” questions raised during discussions among group members that bore on the traceability of information, the source of financing for various kinds of expertise hired, and group members’ biographical elements.

The second phase of the experimentation consisted in opening up the mapping to people outside the group in order to evaluate the effect on the collective of these new people: would things change for them if they had to express their positions publicly in front of individuals who were not the ones they were accustomed to meeting with (i.e., decision-makers)? It was also a matter of evaluating the practicality and the social relevance of Debategraph: does it make it possible for individuals to grasp in a comprehensible mode, those questions and things at stake in a controversy that concerns them? The opening up of the mapping had to assume that the different members of the public contacted would learn how to use the tool. But in this regard we would not be able to provide individual or even group guidance with the interface, as we had provided it for the group. The various groups among the public were too numerous and heterogeneous to have contact with them in the timeframe provided. In order to facilitate a minimal acquaintance with the Debategraph, we privileged a method of gradual expansion of the set of those to be familiarised, proceeding from people who knew each other and who were part of the larger network of people known to the members of the working group. We also mobilised members of the public via the Internet; beekeepers that were accustomed to communicating via an e-mail list (the “bee list”). The only help we could offer them consisted of an online tutorial (less linear) and a FAQ section added to the Debategraph site (including questions that were asked on a regular basis by members of the working group during individual meetings).


In general terms we can say, regarding the whole experiment that the Debategraph allowed the emergence of a large number of questions, even if under the experimental conditions a number of them were not based on broad foundations as regards positions and arguments. Among the questions raised, we find “classic” questions regarding the controversy, like those concerning the causes of mortalities, but also “original” questions concerning emotions, the relation between scientific and empirical knowledge, tensions between amateurs and professionals, the place in society of scientific literature, the place of the press, etc.

Beginning with the first workshop it appeared that all these questions had their place in determining the important questions to be asked, and therefore mapped. They were the lasting vectors of a sharing, which – it appears to us, and which seems to agree with the past experiences of the group members – was hardly like the closed-door meetings of ministerial commissions. They seem important because they demonstrate in a privileged manner – as long as they are exhibited in all their dimensions – expressions of “matters of concern” that appear to lend weight to, and even determine, a part of the bees’ controversy.

The dynamic inside the group functioned relatively well, except for the succession of withdrawals involving two beekeepers (a practitioner and the CARI's representative).
Speaking for oneself based on one’s own experience turned out to be difficult for the practitioner. Perhaps that he didn't feel authorised to speak for himself.We never claimed that we could resolve the controversy, and only intended to share necessarily diverse modes of experience. Underlying everything else there was the reality that all those involved were not on the same wavelength regarding the sharing of experiences, above all from the point of view of managing the problem (even if this perspective was not attributed as such to the group). The difficulty that beekeepers had in participating in debate via Debategraph may have had to do with the fact that other participants (the stakeholders) were sent to the workshops in order to speak on behalf of the institutions they represented, not for themselves; whereas this is precisely what was required of the beekeepers (at least for our practitioner).

From the very beginning, the prospect of opening up the work of mapping to a wider public, that is, to groups and persons not connected to the working group but who might plausibly be interested by the content and the dynamic of Debategraph, had a contrasted effect on the group members.

For most persons in the group this perspective and the expectations it generated were assigned a high value: it would be the opportunity for putting to debate those perspectives they had opened up and wished to share. The small degree of participation registered on Debategraph by this wider public thus turned out to be the source of great disappointment. In contrast, the key players from a scientific and technical standpoint who were in direct touch with beekeeping circles were the ones who avoided stoking the Debategraph. They did so either by participating in the meetings but sticking to verbal participation in the discussion (which participation was very interesting), or by gradually withdrawing from the collective (CARI). "Is the public important?" We believe that this question had secondary importance for these two protagonists: Either it was an outside world that had to be sensitised to the stakes riding on the problem as determined by the findings of the scientific research being carried out, or it was far too remote from the stakes and working with the relevant official authorities (in this case European ones) was more important. It is also important to note that these two actors – who disagreed regarding the diagnosis to be recorded concerning the high mortality rate among bees – agreed as regards the determinant importance of scientific expertise. In both cases, that which was most centrally at stake was first of all, the question of control or mastery of information communicated to the public.

What we retain from these efforts linked to the possibility of opening up, and allowing public participation through the use of an Internet platform by certain stakeholders, is that it is difficult (but not impossible) to explore at the same time a problematic and to take account of the same problematic in terms of the reaction of a wider public. As one of the members of the bee group very justly pointed out: “(...) the question of a relation to reality [is] often mixed up by group members with the truth, and also often considered as univocal. That caused a recurrent misunderstanding as to the very object of the work of the group: are we trying to find out what happened to the bees, or doing an exercise in putting a controversy in flat form?” We had indeed two exercises to be considered together: one concerning the dynamic of interactions between participants (who were able to exhibit their positions and arguments, and thus for some, able to defend the same), and the second, the dynamic consisting in mobilising communicators and the Debategraph as resources in order to take account of the controversy (to make it visible) in relation to a broader public. Our research allowed at the very most, highlighting this difficulty, showing how necessary it is to take it into account in undertaking a “life-size” procedure of a public constitution of an interactive map of a controversy.


What is the social and political added value of such a map?

What added value can such a mapping procedure contribute, that brings together the protagonists in a controversy?

The working group succeeded in taking account of questions that were scarcely discussed by the scientific community and in ministerial commission meetings, but which have some relevance outside those contexts. As we have noted, communicators played an essential role in the exercise. A mapping procedure that associates the protagonists in a controversy with non-experts appears to guarantee that questions (especially “matters of concern”) that are often ignored or treated as unimportant (although they influence the course of the controversy) will be brought forward and considered.

The group also led the collective to question scientific activity. Certain a priori suppositions relative to science were questioned and a number of aspects of the functioning of scientific activity were questioned. It also seemed important to several members of the collective to provide the possibility for empirical knowledge to be expressed in the same way as scientific knowledge, comforted by the idea that mutual learning is possible.

In the opinion of members of the group, the Debategraph has potential in the area of the activities of each one.
• At the scientific level it could be a means of improving the communication of results in relation to classic media, making known the duties and requirements (“obligations et exigences” in French) (Stengers, 2006) of science and placing results in discussion through sharing and placing them in discussion in publications.
• At the media level the Debategraph could help investigate a controversy, because it helps identify the main points of a problematic by limiting the pathways to be explored.
• At the educational level (teaching, environmental education) the Debategraph could contribute to the development of critical thinking and foster the development of the ability to handle controversial situations.
• At the level of what citizens can do, the Debategraph offers stakeholders a space in which to make public their positions and in which they can be heard, and it allows observations in the field, know-how and empirical knowledge to be taken into consideration, aspects that are often ignored or evacuated from scientific activity.

But it is a matter, as we have said, of potentials. We still have to determine the conditions that must be provided in order to realize them, so that they can constitute real added value for each participant. And among these conditions, we include the necessity of a guidance and the question of the presence or absence of a political mandate that could support such a cartographic procedure.

Within our experimentation, the guidance was provided by communicators and by our team. Communicators were mobilised by their experience in the area of communication with regard to complex subjects, experience gained in the course of their professions. Their role would eventually be to help with evaluating the Debategraph as a means of transmitting and sharing information of a complex nature, to be communicated to different publics, but more specifically, during the experiment, to attract attention to the clarity of the information furnished by the protagonists – and if necessary to ask for further information – and concerning the resources to be mobilised in order to illustrate or document them.

Thus the communicators played a fundamental and structuring role in the group, at the level of form as much as at the level of the content of the Debategraph. By asking delicate questions that the stakeholders could not ask (financing of protagonists, professional experience of researchers, etc.), by obliging the protagonists through their involvement to clarify and specify their own positions and arguments, and by indicating original issues, they contributed in varying degrees to the opening up of the debate, to insuring its dynamic, and fostering its reflective character.

At the beginning of the experimentation the communicators were hesitant to break in at certain points in the debate, feeling that they lacked the competence to do so. But we indeed counted on their “ignorance” in relation to the problematic in order to insure the readability of discussions, since it became impossible under these conditions for protagonists to keep exchanging propositions that were objects of tacit comprehension and understanding, which they alone might share. Also limiting the protagonists by slowing them down, communicators also encouraged the reflective character of the debate and made sure that by the side of original issues the emergence of issues which because they were evident to the protagonists (but for them only) would have been absent from the mapping.

As for our role as a team from the University of Liege and moderator of the procedure, it consisted in setting up the actual group that would allow members of the collective to interact in order to render capable of appropriation by a greater number the things that were at stake in the bees’ controversy. More precisely it notably consisted in coordinating the collective around the use of the Debategraph ensuring especially the moderating of the debate. Over and above the guarantee offered by the presence of a moderator our role was to insure the comprehension of discussions by connecting the elements of the debate through hyperlinks, and the coherence of the map by suggesting moving certain interventions that may have been misplaced at first to places where they would have more relevance (with the agreement of their author) – especially by bringing information up from comments toward a higher level of visibility when that appeared necessary, through the creation of ad hoc elements within the Debategraph. We always took care to let authors know, but the problem that arose is that that interfered with the ideal traceability of all things written, since those actions had our names attached to them, not the authors’ names.

The absence of a political mandate engendered very different reactions from different protagonists: certain members of the group saw opportunity in the dynamic that surrounded the installation of the Debategraph, namely an exchange on a new basis, in order to take account of things that were at stake in relation to a wider public. To say things in a different way, and to hope to communicate them in order to break out of usual positions that may have become caricatured. This was probably made possible because there were no labelled sponsors on either side, as a university team in human sciences were the initiators. On the other hand, other group members preferred not to get involved, precisely because there were no traditional institutional sponsors that might have taken the result of this dynamic into consideration (in order to counsel a ministerial cabinet, or a European board of directors, for example). Our experimentation found itself in a rather ambivalent situation, trying to make non-habitual points of view emerge within a space marked by position-taking, above all institutional. This was made possible thanks to the delicate intervention of some protagonists (which brings up the crucial question of the choice of participants in the group). But the entire group suffered from ambiguity owing to its intermediate position: the mandate is the one that the entire group gave itself, namely to test the relevance of a procedure for exploration that belongs to the collective, and whose testing in relation to a wider public could not be accomplished at its proper value in view of the mission that our MACOSPOL’s contribution entailed (to work with and through stakeholders).


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