Visual Arts
5:00 am
Fri August 9, 2013

Artist Creates 'Haven' For Honeybees

They’re small insects, flitting from flower to flower, and most people don’t give them a second look. But honeybees are vitally important to agriculture, pollinating seeds and crops, mostly fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Disease and other factors have been killing alarming numbers of bee colonies in recent years. Artist Jarrett Mellenbruch is trying to raise awareness through the installation of working beehive sculptures.

The search for the right tree

It’s a cool morning, just before noon in mid-May. Walking along the spongy black trail in Hyde Park, the grass is still lush and green. But we’re looking up, at the trees.

Mellenbruch uses a honeybee swarm attractant wipe to lure swarms to the bait hive (pictured, at right).
Mellenbruch uses a honeybee swarm attractant wipe to lure swarms to the bait hive (pictured, at right).
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

"Right now, I’m looking for a tree, that has a branch that’s going to be pretty horizontal, that’s going to be about 15 feet in the air, that I can throw a rope over and pull this bait hive up to," says artist Jarrett Mellenbruch.

After a bait hive is placed, Mellenbruch documents and maps the location with his phone.
After a bait hive is placed, Mellenbruch documents and maps the location with his phone.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

He's wearing a faded khaki jacket, with rows of pockets, and holds a textured brown paper bait hive. Picture two 3-gallon containers, in a trapezoid shape, stacked one on top of the other. It’s a temporary hive for honeybees, built to attract them when they’re swarming.

Mellenbruch tosses a softball, with a tail of string, over a tree limb. And then, he does it again. "Oh, yes, perfect," he says. "Third time's a charm."

He starts to pull the hive into the tree, until it's about 15 feet off the ground: the sweet spot for bees.

Creating a honeybee sanctuary

A painter and sculptor, Mellenbruch graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design – and teaches at UMKC. He’s finishing his master’s at Maine College of Art. But amateur beekeeping runs in his family – from his grandfather to his mother, and in his own backyard.

His Haven project, launched with a Rocket Grant, turns the hidden life of bees into public art, a white sculptural hive.

"That’s part of the reason that I started this Haven project because people were taking such an interest in the beekeeping that I was doing. I thought there would be a space for it in the public realm," says Mellenbruch. "So, far, it’s been true, I think."

Designing for bees

"His design matches what we know makes for a prime home site for honeybees: height off the ground, entrance size, cavity size, entrance direction. All of those things," says Thomas Seeley, a professor at Cornell University, one of the scientific advisors and honeybee experts tapped by Mellenbruch in the development of the project.

Seeley helped the artist shape the design to "meet the biological needs of bees." His research is focused on swarm intelligence, the problem solving ability of a group of bees who’ve left the hive along with the old queen – to establish a new colony.  

"It does seem very scary, because it’s 10,000 stinging insects there. It’s just that they don’t sting in this mode, and they’re not taking up residence there. They’re not going to be there for long," he says. "In fact, the whole story of what’s going on there is, in my opinion, one of the greatest stories of biology, this whole house hunting by honeybees."

An artist on call

Jarrett Mellenbruch places the tree branch, with a swarm of bees, into a box.
Jarrett Mellenbruch places the tree branch, with a swarm of bees, into a box.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR

In the spring, for at least a month, Mellenbruch’s studio practice is on hold. And, while he waits for honeybees to move in to his bait hives – he also goes out to collect swarms, as they cluster under trampolines, on gravestones, or in car grills. He gets texts from beekeepers, or phone calls, swarm calls, he calls them. (Note: he had 18 swarm calls this spring.)

"It’s funny, this one time of year, I kind of feel like a doctor on call, because I have to have everything in the truck, and I often have to break conversations and leave right away," says Mellenbruch.

A bee fans, raising its abdomen and wiggling. It's signaling to the other bees that it's their new home.
A bee fans, raising its abdomen and wiggling. It's signaling to the other bees that it's their new home.
Credit Jarrett Mellenbruch

On this day, in the backyard of a two-story house in Blue Springs, Missouri, a large swarm, in the shape of a guitar, hangs from the end of a branch of a small tree. Wearing a hooded white beekeeper suit, and long purple gloves, Mellenbruch clips the branch, and lowers it into his box, waiting for the bees to join their queen. 

"So this bee here, you can see her tail is raised up," he says, pointing with a glove, "They stand at the entrance, they put their butt up in the air, and they fan their wings, it spreads the pheromone. And the bees that aren’t all going inside, they’re all fanning."

A network of beehive sculptures, designed for efficiency

Mellenbruch’s working beehive sculptures now dot the metro, installed on 16-foot posts at the  Kauffman Memorial Garden near the Plaza, and, the first, at the DST 18Broadway garden downtown.

He says he wanted the design to be “simple, iconic, classic” and weather-resistant. The durable sculpture is "somewhere between a rural farmhouse, a martin house, and maybe some sort of beautiful white church."

Mellenbruch adds, "And these are all things that we’re comfortable with. And it’s important to me that people be comfortable with the idea of bees where we live."

It’s also a design that can be replicated. And the artist has hopes that, with the help of a corporate sponsor or a grant, he’ll be able to meet his goal of a network of 1000 Haven hives.

For now, about a dozen sculptures are set to be installed this fall – with the swarms, gathered in the spring, as tenants.

Find out more about Mellenbruch's Deep Ecology Project - Haven here.