honeybee colonies, hive communication, varroa mites

It takes creative talent to communicate a specific goal, message, or theme with a piece art and even more so to get observers to see the point of a piece. British artist Wolfgang Buttress, a man of these intentions, said of his most recent work, “I want visitors to feel enveloped, wrapped-up, and involved in the experience, rather than adopting the position of an external observer.” This ‘sculpture’ is called “Feeding the Planet,” and the 17-meter-high installation contains 170,000 pieces of aluminum, is suspended from the ground, and is meant to appear as a swarm of honeybees from a distance. However, as one comes closer, it becomes a hive-like structure of latticework with low humming sounds and hundreds of flickering LED lights. These sounds and lights are controlled by the vibrations of real honeybees—in an actual hive, at the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens in London.

“My approach,” Buttress said “to a sculpture seeks to frame nature so one can experience it more intimately…I opened a bee hive for the first time two years ago, and it gave me a different outlook on life and how humans are connected to nature.” Buttress, inspired by his research into the decline of global honeybee populations, learned about the way honeybees communicate (primarily through vibrations) to achieve this goal of connecting observers to honeybees and nature.

While in the hive and going about their daily business, the Hive’s honeybees bite wooden sticks connected to conductors and send out one of four vibrational messages through the bones in their head, thereby showing visitors through LED lights a visual of bee communication. These signals include tooting and quacking signals virgin queen bees make when challenging each other in displays of strength to determine the one queen; begging, when bees request food from other bees; and the waggle dance, which communicates the location of good food caches.

The Hive, which acts as a pavilion of sorts at Kew, sits in a one-acre meadow planted with 34 native species of wild flowers including clovers and cornflowers, and a few later flowering cultivated varieties also surround the Hive along with 65 meters of native hedges. The idea is that when the field is in bloom, the 50 identified species wild bees in that meadow will be the first sights visitors experience as they walk to the upper level of the Hive, where an oculus connects the structure with the sky and other elements, lighting up what would typically be the dark hive honeybees reside in.

Buttress was especially inspired by the place honeybees have in the world, who, beyond creating honey, pollinate roughly 70 percent of crops, and he wanted the highlight their importance as pollinators. “Bees are highly sensitive creatures and can be seen as sentinels for the health of the planet,” he said. Combining architecture, art, and design with science and the environment, Kew’s director Richard Deverell, said the Hive is a “great way to tell the story of the relationship between plants and insects.” Such thoughts remain in line with Buttress’s goal to reconnect people with nature: “We are in danger of losing that vitally important connection, especially in cities.”

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