The Bee Space: Arts and Agriculture
This is a collection of articles written for a local newspaper, oriented toward the general public, written around 2007. It contains some generalized beekeeping themes intersecting with human behavior and the arts.
Only after humans found a way to feed themselves, by producing a surplus of calories through agriculture, could energy be put into other activities, dedicated to understanding the mysteries of life on planet earth via the arts. And society in the modern age continues to have this fundamental relationship. One need only reflect on what happens when hurricanes and tornadoes affect the Sunshine State. Quickly the human population is reduced to “survival” mode, and the essentials of life, water and food, become paramount.
The modern “artist” contends with this situation as well, often being the proverbial waiter (holding a “day job”) in order to carve out a nightly “gig” contributing to more ethereal aspirations. The same is true for this author, who inhabited the halls of academia, and whenever possible and in “retirement” trod the boards of local community theaters and penned columns for local newspapers.
Here are a few words about myself. I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in Zoology in 1964. Two years in the Peace Corps (Ecuador) was followed by a stint in the U.S. Navy. Folks in this voluntary service got no reprieve in 1967 as the Vietnam conflict raged. Subsequently, while pursuing a graduate degree in Latin American Geography at the University of Georgia, I was overtaken by a severe case of “honey bee fever,” and enrolled in the study of insects (entomology). After earning a Ph.D., I became a faculty member at The Ohio State University and then the University of Florida for twenty years, until retiring from the formal academic life in 2001.
Certainly honey bees and the arts go back a long way. Many call honey bee management an art. There is in fact a great lack of specific scientific information on the insect scientists call Apis mellifera, even though it is one of the most studied organisms. All bee culture is local, based on a specific geography, the reason one can ask the same question to a number of beekeepers and get quite different answers. This means that the better human honey bee manager is really more an artist, having to “think like a honey bee colony,” painting a picture using the best knowledge available from a variety of disciplines like soil science, botany, nutrition in order to get the maximum effort (production) from one’s insect charges.
Honey bees are also artists in their own right. They use a relatively weak material (beeswax), but structure it such that there is maximum strength for a minimum of material (some graphics show worker bees anthropomorphically wielding trowels). The resultant cells of the delicate honey bee comb can withstand a huge amount of weight (honey). It is this classic hexagon shape that humans have incorporated in a variety of ways into their own manufacturing. And what the honey bee lacks is found elsewhere in the insect world. Any technology or lifestyle adopted by humans was no doubt was first “practiced” by insects, making them one of nature’s most enduring organisms.
Honey bees are the source of several products, which have been used by humans for thousands of years. Beeswax, produced by worker bees in a way we have yet to fully understand or duplicate through modern chemistry, was and continues to be used in the artistic process known as “lost wax casting.” Many of the classic and modern sculptures that we admire today would not have been possible without this natural material that provided an ephemeral mold to be replaced by longer-lasting molten metal.
Even beehives made by humans can be works of art in themselves, shaped into bears, houses, and beekeepers themselves. The honey bee motif is incorporated in numerous human symbols. Bee images were put on medieval coats of arms (Napoleon famously had them on his royal robes), the ancient Egyptians used them on papyrus documents and carved them in their ceremonial stelae. Utah features a beehive on its official state seal. Honey bees appear as subjects in paintings and movies. The best glimpse of a modern U.S. beekeeper’s life can be seen in Ulee’s Gold, starring Peter Fonda, filmed in Florida’s panhandle in 1997. Famous beekeepers fill human literature and history.
In conclusion, gentle readers, this will be a place where, like the cradle and storage technology of the honey comb, the themes of art and agriculture will intersect, more than not through an entomological perspective. Here’s a listing of articles in this series: