Contributed by Edmond Dounias
UMR5175 Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology, France


Funded by the French Foundation for Biodiversity Research (Fondation pour la Recherche sur la Biodiversité, FRB), Sentimiel — a play of word with ‘sentinel’, ‘miel’ being the French term for ‘honey’ — is a citizen science operation with the twin aims of i) constructing a network of cooperative initiatives around traditional beekeeping and honey harvesting at the international level and ii) ensuring, via this network, the monitoring of effects of global changes, viewed through the prism of their impact on bees and on their production of honey and associated products.

Passionate dialogue between Alberto Siabo Bonomar (honey hunter from Mozambique) and Lahoucine Bounnit (beekeeper from Morocco) during the Sentimiel workshop in Montpellier (May 2012) when discovering the log hives of Cevennes made with chestnut logs. Romain Simenel (anthropologist at IRD) is helping for the translation between Portuguese and Arabian

The fundamental challenge of the Sentimiel initiative is to valorize traditional ecological knowledge tied to beekeeping and honey collecting (including the ‘hunting’ of honey of wild bees) through a network that federates diverse local actors who possess empirical knowledge about bees and their productions and who, by their regular observation of the activity of these insects, can monitor the impact of global change on their local environment.

The functions that bees can play as sentinels of the environment no longer need to be demonstrated. Bees alert us to a multitude of changes in our environment, most of these changes being of human origin, particularly when these changes operate below threshold levels that are not directly perceptible by humans: bees often warn us about changes we ourselves may not see.

Nevertheless, analysis of the information delivered by bees has so far been focused on the domestic honeybee in the context of professional or semi-professional beekeeping. Knowledge based on subsistence honey collecting, which concerns an incredible diversity of honey-producing bees, has so far been ignored.

Sentimiel’s ambition is to gain international recognition for this widespread but neglected knowledge, and to give those who hold it the means to obtain funding from sources which would otherwise be inaccessible to them.

Making this knowledge more visible would permit, on the one hand, ending the isolation of cooperative initiatives that have decided to adhere to the project.

Baka Pygmy searching for chitin leftovers from bees fallen prey to ants, indicating the potential presence of an active beehive.

The prospective objective of the project is to increase our understanding of the consequences of global change for the world’s biodiversity by constituting an international citizen-science network, building a common base of very precise and very localized empirical observations by knowledgeable actors. All those with a passion for the world of bees can thus join together in a collaborative action that valorizes their knowledge and contributions, at the international level, to management practices that are more respectful of nature.

In addition, this network longs for facilitating access to funding by large international agencies that may finance participatory research-action projects targeting problems or issues raised locally by members of the network. Funding might also be attracted in support of initiatives to preserve local cultural heritage endangered by globalization.

Because the incidence of climate change in tropical forests is subtle and only slightly perceptible, the Sentimiel initiative investigates deeper into local perceptions, along the tight frontier between ‘feelings’ and ‘objective observation’. In the new context of climate change, the capacity of local communities to anticipate on erratic fluctuations of seasons is vital for their livelihoods.

The research focuses on biotemporal signals that are determining events upon which forest dwellers have acquired the capacity to anticipate on climate fluctuations, to organize the calendar of their activities and to take their decisions to invest in some activities and not in others (Dounias 2011).

Biotemporal signals are from different kinds: visual, sonorous, olfactory, tactile… Since signals never occur in isolation, forest peoples use a beam of converging signals. This combination of determining events mitigates the risks of misinterpretation.

Among the different types of biotemporal signals, insects — and more significantly bees — are probably the most accurate and the most fascinating. Insects are sensitive to very subtle fluctuations of climatic conditions not perceptible to humans. Such indicators of changes in seasons are completely neglected by formal land managers or, at best, simply considered as ‘folklore’ and informative only to anthropologists.

Drawings say a lot about how children perceive the world around them. The combs hanging under the branches of a Koompassia majestic tree (that culminates up to 75 m high in the canopy) is a recurrent theme in the drawings of the Punan children of Borneo. The giant bees (Apis dorsata) nest exclusively on Koompassia trees, where they feel safe from predators.

Even if local interpretations of such signals often refer to mystic and symbolic considerations or invoke supernatural forces, the basic ecological observations of the expert eyes of local communities remains a fundamental source of information for biologists.

The Sentimiel initiative advocates in favor of a greater involvement of local communities into the process of assessing the poorly visible impact of climate change on tropical forests. Through their extensive traditional ecological knowledge and know-how, local communities could play a determining role as sentinels by providing first-hand and accurate observations and supplying databases that dramatically fail at incorporating anthropological data into the elaboration of predictive models on climate change (Salick and Byg 2007).

On the margins of the 13th edition of the ISE Congress (20-25 May 2012 in Montpellier, France), the Sentimiel initiative held a two-day ‘by invitation only’ pre-congress workshop. This workshop was hosted in the Darwin’s house located at the Montpellier zoo, and included a fieldtrip in the Cévennes National Park. The goal of this workshop was to initiate a dialogue between researchers in ethnobiology, traditional beekeepers and honey hunters, and representatives of NGOs. 32 participants attended the workshop, including 13 beekeepers from Cameroon, Mozambique, Morocco, Indonesia, Colombia, two regions of India, and three regions of France.

Each beekeeper participating in the workshop actively contributed to the development of 5 thematic discussions. Each discussion was organized as a round table, and the workshop was concluded by a debate on the dynamics and future of traditional beekeeping. Thematic discussions focussed successively on i) individual experience of beekeeping or honey harvesting practices, ii) detailed descriptions of the biocultural context, iii) perceived emerging threats, iv) adaptive responses to these threats, and v) intergenerational transmission processes.

Besides building on an open access database online, the network will go on expanding, taking advantage of various major events to come like the 10th Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (Liverpool, UK, June 2013) and the 43rd International Apimondia Congress (Kiev, Ukrainia, September 2013).

 Further Reading

  1. Dounias E. 2011. Escuchando a los insectos : acercamiento etnoentomológico al cambio climático entre pueblos indígenas africanos de bosques húmedos tropicales. In Ulloa A. ed. Perspectivas culturales del clima. Bogotá, Universidad National de Colombia, ILSA: pp 223-245.
  2. Salick J., Byg A. eds. 2007. Indigenous peoples and climate change. Oxford, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, 32 p.

Contact the Sentimiel Initiative
UMR5175 CEFE – Campus CNRS – 1919, route de Mende – 34293 Montpellier cedex 5, France
Tel (+33) 988662963 / Fax (+33) 467613336
Email: [email protected] / url: