In recent years, there has been a growing concern for the welfare of a tiny, yet extremely important, species of insect that graces our planet – the bees. Apiculturists (beekeepers) have been reporting strange incidents in which entire hives of their bees vanish without a trace, leaving none of the usual evidence of a predatory attack, nor the tell-tale corpses which would reveal disease to be the culprit. The cause of these disappearances has been widely debated, and explanatory theories range to include global warming, radiation from cell phones, pesticide use, and poor bee nutrition. Whatever the reason, apiculturists, biologists, and food scientists agree – the continued disappearance of bees on a massive scale (we are talking millions of bees here), referred to as colony collapse disorder, has the potential to wreak havoc upon our planet and our survival. It is estimated that thirty to fifty percent of the world’s edible crops are pollinated by bees, and without the fulfilment of this vital role, these crops could not survive, and a widespread famine would result.
The bees have long been a favourite collaborator for Aganetha Dyck, a Canadian artist born near Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1937. Dyck, whose artistic statement expresses a fascination with “how knowledge is transported and transcribed between humans and other species,” has been working together with swarms of bees since 1991 to create fantastical pieces that combine the creations of humanity with the creations of nature’s pollen-bearers. My favourite series of Dyck’s, entitled The Masked Ball, features a number of delicate, beeswax-adorned and distorted porcelain figurines which had been “treated” by the bees for periods of time ranging from one to sometimes six years. Initially revealed in 2008 at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario, this series was not Dyck’s first bee-collaborated work – she had previously experimented with bee-treated shoes, clothes hangers, and hats – however I find it to be her most beautiful and poignant work.
Much of Dyck’s work with the bees speaks to the relationship existing between humanity and the bee species, and this series is perhaps the most literal expression of a relationship that is complex and multifaceted, but ultimately rests upon mutual interdependence. Not only do we rely upon bees to maintain the ongoing continuation of our food supply, but actually the bees rely largely upon humans for their current survival as well. Right now, about 95% of bees are tended by apiculturists, with only 5% existing in the wild. This intensely interdependent relationship however is a tacit one – and overshadowed in most people’s minds by more acute memories of painful beestings or allergic reactions. Bees are thus most often associated with discomfort rather than fondness, and perceived as menacing rather than nurturing characters.
To some, the images of these sculptures appear creepy and alarming, bringing to mind nightmarish wax museum horror stories in which the human “wax sculptures” are actually corpses or living persons that have been immersed in boiling wax by the mad sculptor [think Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and House of Wax (2005)]. These images also elicit a vague discomfort associated with the disturbing notion of being physically overtaken and eventually swallowed by a foreign attachment – in this case, honeycomb – and mentally losing oneself in the process. A malignant tumour grows and eventually encases its bearer, infiltrating their consciousness and slowly turning them into a (physically or psychologically) unrecognizable monstrosity. We have seen it before – with Dr. Octavius/”Octopus” from Spider-man 2 (2004), and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo/Gollum and the ring.
On the other hand, The Masked Ball functions to highlight the productive aspect of the human-bee relationship, illustrating its mutually creative potential by exhibiting the product of combined interspecies work. The finished pieces are graceful, for the bees often follow and extend the curves of each sculpture with their wax, in a sense continuing and expanding upon the work of the original human sculptor. The manner in which beeswax adorns these small human figurines is both decorative and protective, and creates the most literal metaphor of an idealized human-bee relationship. The bees swarm these delicate human figurines not to attack or destroy them, but to build upon, protect and beautify them.
Dyck herself expresses a genuine care for the bee species, explaining that she has “tried to see how close I can get to the bees, and understanding them.” She describes how they have a unique “warmth and a sound and a feel if you let them crawl on you,” and that she feels profoundly “home” when she is with them. Her artist statement highlights her interest in communicating with bees, and learning from them, thereby exploring the possibility of “interspecies communication”.
Dyck’s interest in bees hinges also on a larger, and more currently relevant issue than interspecies communication. In her words, “I am interested in the small, in the really tiny of the world. We’re going so fast, because we have so many people to feed and house and so we just bulldoze ahead. It’s the simplest things that already exist and work so hard for us, that I think we’re kind of ignoring…”
This concern, for the havoc we are wreaking upon the fragile ecosystems which we share with countless other species, has been expressed increasingly by the more environmentally-aware members of society, promulgated on television and in newspapers, even addressed in the movies. As Aganetha Dyck puts it, “If somebody said to somebody else, ‘if you could only save one species what species would that be?’ most people would say humans. Most people don’t think we’re a part of nature and that kind of is what we’re talking about here. We don’t often think about where we trod, why we alter things, and what the implications of that are.” This issue does in fact tie to her fascination with “interspecies communication,” because our mutual reliance with a species such as the bees means that there is a distinct human-animal relationship in existence which needs to be cultivated and nurtured, and so there is an ongoing process of interspecies communication occurring.
Dyck is not the first or the only artist to collaborate with a bee team in the interest of art. Garnett Puett was one of the earliest artists to put a team of bees to work on what he calls “apisculpture,” and Hilary Berseth afterward followed in Dyck’s footsteps creating some hauntingly beautiful and fascinating sculptures that look like other-worldly cities or palaces. While Puett shared a very similar affectionate and respectful attitude towards the bees as that promulgated by Dyck, Berseth’s focus remained instead on the art object itself, with the expressed goal of actually trying to manipulate the bees’ behaviour to produce a particular effect and thereby shape the product of their work.