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Documenting folk science – Solega honeybee knowledge as a case study

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Title: Documenting folk science – Solega honeybee knowledge as a case study
Issue Date: 01 Mar 2013
Description: The documentation of a community’s traditional knowledge about various aspects of the natural world can result in a rich, culturally relevant corpus of language material. Ethnobiological investigations frequently lead to discoveries of species or ecological phenomena unknown to ‘western’ science, while simultaneously recording a potentially endangered domain of language and traditional knowledge. Honeybees, along with the various products they yield, are highly valued by communities living in most parts of the world, and it is to be expected that people will have detailed and in-depth traditional knowledge of this important group of species. In this paper, I describe my efforts to document the honeybee knowledge of the Solega (Dravidian, southern India), and present some of the insights community members have into various aspects of this insect’s behaviour, ecology and physiology. The Solega lexicon contains many words to describe various bee types, honeycomb growth stages and honey varieties. Much of what the Solega know about honeybee biology was discovered by ‘western’ science two to three centuries ago. This includes an awareness that the single ‘queen bee’ found in each honeybee colony is female, that she is the mother of all the worker bees that make up the bulk of a colony’s population, and that the birth of a second queen usually results in the division of the colony into two separate entities. The Solega are also aware of the direct link between the visits of foraging bees to flowering plants, and the development of fruit on those plants, as well as of the floral origins of honey. While such facts might seem mundane to most people living in urban communities, I argue that they represent significant insights, based on inductive reasoning, on the part of the Solega, and are therefore worth recording in an ethnobiologically-focused language documentation project. These insights appear all the more remarkable when it is noted that the Solega are gatherers of wild honey, and have never been beekeepers. The Solega, lacking any scientific instrumentation, formal methodology or artificial hives, have been able to uncover extremely hard-to-observe aspects of honeybee biology simply through opportunistic interactions with these insects on honey-gathering excursions. I conclude by noting that folk science should be perceived as an autonomous, self-contained body of knowledge in its own right, and that language documenters should resist the temptation to be dismissive of those elements of folk science that appear to be commonplace.
URI/DOI: http://hdl.handle.net/10125/26065
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)



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