Unseen Text: The Silence of the Bees
Text Type: Scientific Article
Guiding Question: How does this text both interest and inform the reader?
In recent years, the category of general interest scientific writing has exploded in both quality and quantity. Fuelled by charismatic scientists – who also happen to be great speakers and writers – such as Michio Kaku, Brian Cox and Sabine Hossenfelder, and crossing media from books to television documentaries to podcasts, blogs, vlogs and video lectures, this genre actually has a long and distinguished history (think about how many years David Attenborough and Jane Goodall have been writing and presenting, and how many people have read Charles Darwin or Stephen Hawkings’ famous books). A short search on the internet turns up several possible sources of articles such as today’s: New Scientist Magazine; Nature; Cosmos; National Geographic; Scientific American – and many more. Not surprisingly, these publications have been the source of many texts in Paper 1. While they may be initially befuddling, after you read a few articles patterns start to emerge. Today’s response was written by Meagan Finocchiaro after exploring this genre as part of her Paper 1 preparation. She began to notice a pattern: many articles were built around a narrative framework, with elements such as setting the scene, flashback, dramatic tension – and even character types such as protagonists and antagonists. Work with this text by yourself, then scroll down to see her sample response. While completely successful, be mindful that this is only one possible way of analysing this text; alternative responses may be equally valid.
The text given is a scientific article from the High-Country News magazine, an organisation that details West American news; it was written by Hannah Nordhaus and published on 19th of March 2007. The audience of the text is presumably the average readership of the High Country News and, while the text is most likely to be of interest to people who live and work only in western America, the lack of jargon suggests the article is for a broad section of the ‘American West.’ The issue is one of topical importance – the environment – and a diverse range of people are likely to have interests in this issue. The text’s purpose is to inform readers with the knowledge that bees are dying at a fast rate. In order to convey this information in an interesting way, the text narrativises the story of John Miller, a beekeeper, who provides a point of view figure helping to engage readers in the story of the ‘great bee die-off’.
At the top of the page there is a title: ‘The Silence of the Bees.’ This title is simple and conceals the details of the article, creating an ominous effect and thereby encouraging people to read the rest of the story to find out more. This is supported by the subheading given right below the title: ‘The perilous existence of a migratory beekeeper amid a great bee die-off;’ this builds upon the suspense of the title by providing more information about the article through description while using adjectives for dramatic effect: ‘perilous’ and ‘great’ hyperbolise the content of the article. Taking the heading and sub-heading together, the balance between suspense and drama on one hand and finding out about the issue of declining bees on the other is a good representation of the balance between information and interest in the rest of the article.
Nowhere are both purposes of the text more evident than in the way the writer uses statistics, sometimes in specific ways and sometimes to create dramatic effects. Within the first paragraph, the reader is given specific dates and statistics of the event such as ‘February 2005’ and that a single bee-farm can house ‘13,000 hives’ with ‘300 million bees.’ We learn interesting facts, such as the impact of bees on the yield of an almond harvest; increasing it from 40 to 2400 pounds! We also learn sad facts; for example, up to 1300 bees can die in a single day. Through this use of figures, the text is able to provide the reader with precise information, which is the main purpose of scientific articles. Likewise, the text provides names of specific locations and people such as ‘California’s Central Valley’ which helps contextualise the story for a wider readership. The writer is obviously knowledgeable and well researched, which builds credibility between the reader and the writer. However, after establishing the facts of the story, the first paragraph also engages readers through description. Sentences like ‘hundreds of beekeepers descend with billions of bees’ features a more vague and descriptive use of figures, used more for dramatic effect rather than for precision.
The text follows a non-linear, ‘present-past-present’ structure, more typical of a narrative than an informative article. In the first paragraph the problem of bees dying is introduced. At this point the job of the writer is to ‘hook’ the reader into the story and the writer does this by making us feel sorry for the state of the bees. She utilises imagery describing the bees ‘wandering in drunken circles’, using personification to generate empathy for the bees. This is also done through a pattern of three which describes the bees as ‘wingless, desiccated, sluggish’, emphasising the terrible state the bees are in, in order to have the reader sympathise with and therefore care for the bees. Another typical narrative device is the way the opening paragraph sets the scene with images like ‘the almonds were in bloom’. ‘Almond trees’ are used as a reference chain to help the reader keep track of the story: in the second paragraph they are seen to ‘burst into extravagant pink-and-white bloom,’ a sentence which also features beautiful and dramatic language.
Once the central issue is established, the text goes back in time to give us more details about the ‘protagonist,’ a beekeeper called John Miller. He is characterised as a warm, friendly person with a vested interest in helping the bees – a classic ‘rugged individual’ kind of hero. His credentials are established in paragraph 4: he has ‘impeccable breeding’ and ‘a talent for beekeeping.’ His presentation is important because the reader sees the story from his viewpoint, so needs to be able to trust him and relate to his situation. The exchange of honey between John and processors in the fifth paragraph is a case in point; the author writes that it is done ‘on a handshake.’ The action of a handshake symbolises collaboration; it is used in this case to make the reader fond of John Miller. It can be interpreted that John Miller is used as metonymy for all beekeepers; through looking at John’s experience the reader is able to understand the importance of issues that come with the dying of bees. The story of John’s ancestry of beekeeping is used to have the audience connect with him on a personal level and builds depth into the narrative story.
Every good protagonist needs an antagonist, and so the final paragraph of the article describes the ‘varroa mite’ – a tiny spider. The text clearly villainises the insect, describing it in terms such as ‘blood red’ and stating that it is the ‘beekeeper’s biggest enemy.’ This use of name-calling creates support for both beekeepers like John Miller and the bees, whilst the varroa mite’s actions are compared to a ‘tick’; ticks are irritating and dirty, so the simile conveys these negative connotations. Through reference to these insects as ‘predators’ and adjectives such as ‘sinister,’ the text is able to generate a bad image for the spider, turning readers against the bug whilst creating tension, another device borrowed from narrative writing.
In conclusion, the text succeeds in its purpose of informing readers about an issue in the scientific world, in this case, a worrying decline in bee numbers. However, the article is a general interest scientific piece rather than a detailed academic study, so the need to inform is sacrificed to the need to interest readers in the story. Therefore, the text borrows heavily from narratives in order to create drama and entice the reader into the dramatic story of the ‘great bee die-off.’
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