Why do honeybees need help?

Honeybees face many challenges largely due to the prevalence of harmful industrial agriculture practices, which have created a cascading effect of problems that collectively overwhelm the honeybee’s resilient nature.

What are we doing that is harmful to the bees?

Due to the current industrial agriculture model, honeybees cannot easily live on the farms we need them to service. Therefore, commercially kept hives are trucked around the country to pollinate our vast monoculture fields. In this stressed existence, domestic bees are exposed to high levels of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, diseases, miticides, antibiotics, and parasites, while also deprived of their nutritious honey, which is taken for commercial sale and commonly replaced with genetically modified corn syrup.

When commercially kept colonies in the southeast are shipped by truck to the west coast for pollination services, they take whatever diseases or parasites they have with them, and of course the same is true for their return trip. Commercial beekeepers try to medicate the diseases away before these long trips but this is not entirely successful and only further weakens the bees in the long term. These practices are part of the system that has led to such widespread devastation.

Who is to blame?

The short answer is everyone. Commercial beekeepers don’t want to hurt the bee population but they are in a financial bind. They do what they have to to stay in business, and without them, our crops would go unpollinated. Farmers are in a similar bind. They need to maximize productivity through increased acreage and yield-per-acre in order to compete with global prices. This means farms are planted with hundreds or thousands of acres of the same crop, leaving few other flowering plants to sustain the vast number of bees they require. Thus once a year they are forced to import truckloads of bees or lose their crop. The global consumer wants more for less and is already financially stretched to the limit, so is often unwilling to pay a premium or invest extra effort to find the kind of produce that comes from biodynamic farms.

Who can solve the problem?

Again the short answer is everyone. A large-scale shift in practices requires that everyone—including the government, food retailers, agribusiness giants, and individual citizens—participate. An educated and concerned consumer will seek responsibly raised produce. The government must incentivize efforts to farm holistically. Big agriculture must see the limits of its reductionist methods and begin to incorporate biodynamic practices. Food retailers must buy responsibly and help educate the consumer at the point of purchase.

Welcoming and beautiful, the HAVEN project is a step in the right direction. It capitalizes on art’s ability to enchant and educate, at the same time that it creates a significant coast-to-coast honeybee sanctuary, a step toward safeguarding the honeybee and our food security. HAVEN is an example of the kind of multidimensional effort that can lead the next wave in public projects. It also gives government and business a concrete way to financially support honeybee protection through direct sponsorship of HAVEN installations.

How will the bees live in the hive? Don’t they need to be managed?

For the most part, it is “management” that has led to the current honeybee crisis. The bees placed in the sculptures will be local wild survivor stock that have proven resilient in the face of adversity. HAVEN’s underlying idea is that honeybees will benefit as a species when nature is allowed to determine the most suitable genetic material for surviving untreated in the wild. If a colony inhabiting a HAVEN hive becomes too weak, natural selection will be allowed to take its course. In the natural course of events, every three to five years a hive will go empty for a season. This should be what we witness with HAVEN and it is an integral component of the holistic view of nature’s rhythms. After this period the hive can be restocked with bees or allowed to be colonized naturally by another wild swarm.

What is colony collapse disorder?

CCD took the beekeeping world by surprise when worker honeybees quit returning to their hives, abandoning all the honey and pollen as well as the developing brood in the hive. The resulting hive deaths reported multiplied in number until it was clear that there was an alarming worldwide problem. The cause has been attributed to many things but is most likely an example of death by a thousand cuts. The health challenges placed on the honeybee are extensive and have left her in a vulnerable state. Inadequate nutrition (thanks to being deprived of their own honey), parasites, exposure to genetically modified crops, pathogens, antibiotics, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides (including neonicotinoids) and constant movement of the hives from state to state have hammered at the bees’ immune system and pushed them to the breaking point.

What makes HAVEN different?

HAVEN’s design combines modern material advancements and discoveries with several pre-modern beekeeping methods to create a hive whose purpose is to return the honeybee to a self-sustaining existence.

In an example of pre-modern beekeeping habits revisited, HAVEN allows the bees to determine the dimension and configuration of the cells they create. While most beekeepers today use a convenient plastic cell foundation to guide the bees in their honeycomb construction, HAVEN is intended to be used without them. When placed in a hive half-filled with frames and offered the choice of building honeycomb in an open area from scratch or using a manmade starter foundation, a swarm will prefer to build from scratch. The plastic foundation is for our convenience, not their wellbeing. Over the years the dimensions of this plastic foundation have changed to force the bees to build larger cells, which causes the larvae, and thus also the bee, to grow bigger. The slight dimensional changes we have forced on the bee have not proven to have any beneficial effect and may actually create additional stress. By allowing the bees to construct cells of the dimension nature intended they will gradually revert back to a smaller cell size and smaller bee.

The bees living in HAVEN will not have any of their products harvested, allowing them to fully nourish themselves and reap the full benefit of their labor. Since assessing the different colonies’ ability to survive unaided is an important  goal of the project they will not be given any supplemental feeding

The interior dimensions of the hive are smaller and proportionally taller and slimmer than Langstroth hives. During a swarm, scout bees are looking for an ideal sized cavity of around 40 liters. HAVEN is made just to this size and since it is more slender there should be less chance of bees starving to death in the winter because it is too cold to break their cluster and access the honey stores at the edges of the hive.

The tall post not only keeps visitors comfortable in the bees’ proximity but puts the bees at their preferred height.

Top and bottom entrances allow plenty of ventilation and allow the warm humid air coming off the bees to escape in the winter thereby preventing condensation. The top entrance also allows bees to more efficiently come and go straight from the comb, avoiding clumsy walking around on the floor of the hive. So far, the honeybees’ instinct to regulate ventilation into the Haven hive has been expressed by building a propolis curtain across either the top or bottom entrance. As the weather changes the bees change the size of the curtain, widening the opening in hot weather for greater air flow and often closing it up completely in winter to retain the heat they generate. During hot weather, the bees use the bottom entrance as a place to position guards to fan their wings and circulate fresh air. Although heat rises, their fanning creats negative pressure in the hive and pull fresh air in through the top entrance and exhausts it out the bottom.

A double-wall construction allows an insulating air gap to help maintain a stable interior climate and avoid overheating when in direct sun. This more closely resembles the R-value of a hollow tree branch with thick wood walls.

Corian is used as the hive’s external material because of its beauty and ability to resist the elements while requiring little maintenance. Its nonporous nature makes it easy to clean and sterilize if necessary and prevents it from absorbing toxins or pathogens. The inner walls are made of wood because bees like it best. The surface of the wood facing the colony is roughed up with a grinder to provide a surface that encourages the bees to cover it with sticky, antimicrobial propolis. Propolis is an important part of the colony’s immune system.

Once the sculpture is installed will it need much care?

Beekeepers must attend their domestic hives regularly for many good reasons. Since HAVEN is intended for public installation, an important design challenge was to create a beehive that will require less maintenance than the average hive. HAVEN’s goal is to provide habitat for wild honeybees (not harvest their honey) therefore there will be no colony maintenance required.

The conditions which would require attention be given to the colony are colony death or the presence of disease. Either scenario has an easy fix with this hive. In the case of colony death, the hive can either be manually repopulated or no action is taken and over time a new swarm will find the home inviting and move in. Should disease appear in the hive, the few wood components on the interior can be destroyed and easily replaced and the Corian can be sterilized using almost any method available from steam to chemicals without leaving toxic residue behind. This allows most of the hive to be preserved, unlike conventional wood hives which must be completely destroyed by fire.

Why should we worry about the survival of the honeybee?

Honeybees pollinate 1/3 of the human food supply. As a keystone species in the human food chain, the honeybee is a giver of life on many levels.

Why should my local government, museum, park, or community garden spend money installing this?

In addition to basic food security, the annual value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated at over $24 billion. Without the honeybee, there is not only the loss of this food but the income it generates.

Aren’t bees dangerous?

It’s no secret that honeybees have stingers and can defend themselves when needed. That said, Apis mellifera (European honeybee), has been selectively bred over the centuries to favor a docile nature. It makes sense that anyone working with bees regularly wants them to be as calm as possible and this selective breeding has been quite successful. Under normal circumstances, one can open a hive and calmly carry out whatever work needs to be done without angering the bees. They are focused on their jobs and will keep right on working while we inspect their homes. Most stings occur when foraging worker bees are stepped on or accidentally grabbed.

People who have been stung sometimes incorrectly think it was by a honeybee because they can’t identify different species of stinging insects. Wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, and sweat bees, all similar in appearance to the honeybee, tend to be the majority of the culprits, as they are often more aggressive.

What about Africanized “killer” bees?

In 1957 a beekeeper in southern Brazil accidentally released 26 African queen bees he had imported in attempts to raise bees better suited to tropical climates. These queens bred with local bees and spread their genetically dominant traits throughout the bee population. They have hyper-defensive characteristics that helped them survive the harsh conditions they faced in Africa. Their venom is no more toxic than European bees, but when they sting they are more likely to sting en masse. The defense pheromone secreted by a guard bee when she sounds the alarm triggers greater numbers of the hive to respond. Africanized bees are now the de facto species kept in much of Latin America, and over the years, less aggressive Africanized bees have been bred. Ultimately the introduction of this species’ genetic diversity may prove important to long-term honeybee health. In the U.S. they are limited to the southernmost states as they do not survive cold winters.

For now, this public sculpture project will not include installations in areas with Africanized bees. Installing HAVEN on public property in these zones would be too big of a distraction from its goals and could perhaps be considered irresponsible. That said, there could be significant benefits to studying ways to include HAVEN’s practices in these important agricultural regions.

When a void is created in the ecosystem it will be filled, and if that void is due to vanishing European honeybee species it will be filled with opportunistic Africanized Bees. Rather than focus on eradication, which has proven not to work, we can look at the success of the Africanized Bee at dealing with the challenges facing the European Bee as an opportunity to reinvigorate genetic stock and accelerate the process of selective management in the wild populations. Perhaps eventually we may end up with local strains of non-hyper-defensive Africanized bees that can survive without our support.

How can bees survive in city environments?

Keeping bees in urban settings may seem less “natural”; however, urban beekeeping has many advantages over agricultural settings. Urban and suburban environments can provide oases from hardships like the high level of pesticides prevalent on large farms. In cities and suburbs, bees are also often able to obtain a wider variety of pollen and nectar from different flowers and trees than on a monoculture farm.

How do I order HAVEN for my museum, garden, school, city? How do I  find out more?

Thanks for your interest. I am now taking orders for next spring. Spring is the ideal time to collect swarms and let the bees take full advantage of the seasonal nectar flow. You can get in touch with me at: