In 1977 artist Graham Sutherland (1903 – 1980) produced a series of aquatint etchings on the subject of bees. Early in his career Sutherland had trained as an engraver and etcher but colour aquatint was a new process to him and he took to it with enthusiasm, producing fourteen prints in all. As a student I cut out some reproductions of the etchings from a Sunday Times colour supplement for my sketchbook, the beginnings of a project which I never followed up – until now.
Graham Sutherland “Bees Suite – No.13 Expulsion and killing of an enemy”
Last year, whilst working on the installation for the National Trust at Acorn Bank (Gathering Dust) I met a number of beekeepers from Penrith Beekeepers Association who were setting up a new apiary in the gardens which re-kindled thoughts of a bee project. Esen Kaya, Curator of the Custom’s House Gallery in South Shields has asked me to produce an exhibition for next autumn so this would seem to be an ideal opportunity to see this long held aim realised.
Margaret Riches, Treasurer of the Penrith Beekeepers, who has her own hives alongside those of Maire Maguinness on the Greystoke Estate outside Penrith, has kindly allowed me to photograph and film Maire and herself working with their bees. The cycle of bee-life and the intricacies of bee-society is alien and familiar at the same time. Little wonder that the internal workings of beehives have traditionally been held up as models for utopian human societies. Having looked closely at hives and the ways in which beekeepers and bees interact with the structure of the box and the living architecture of the honey comb, I have come to realise that my principal interest lies, perhaps understandably, with the geometry of the process. I can see that this explains the original appeal of the Sutherland etchings which play visual games with the inter-changes between organic and geometric – circles, spheres and curvilinear forms of egg and insect enclosed by the rectangles and hexagons of hive and comb. There is a tension between the bees inclination to build in curves and dance in circles and the straight lines and hard edges imposed upon them by the wooden box and frames.
It has been a poor year for bees in the North of England, a cool spring and unsettled summer contributing to a dearth of foraging days. Margaret said that her bees were close to starving and had to be fed with trays of sugar solution placed in the top of the hive. There is also the continued threat of the varroa mite. This parasite feeds on the bees and leaves them weak and susceptible to viruses and infections. All of this, on top of the overuse of pesticides and the huge decline in flower-rich meadows, has resulted in a worrying decline in honey, bumble and solitary bee populations.
I have also been in contact with Northumberland Honey, a small commercial honey producer run by Luke and Suzie with hives placed in fields just outside Corbridge in the beautiful Tyne Valley. Luke invited me to come along at 5am one Sunday morning as he and friend Josh were due to move the bees from this early season location where they collected nectar from oilseed rape and lime trees, up onto moorland above nearby Hexham. This is country I know well and have used in a number of pieces of work over the years. I often go up there drawing. Hexhamshire is a cul-de-sac, a basin of upland grazing and woodland surrounded by high moorland, an area with a very special atmosphere and largely unknown to outsiders. At this time of year the heather is in full purple bloom and ideal for the production of much prized heather honey.
Unlike the Greystoke bees, which were reasonably friendly and smoked to keep them calm, Luke’s bees were unpredictable and I was glad of the protective suit and helmet. He told me that the mood of a hive can vary considerably depending upon the species of the population and the personality of the queen. Remarkably they were largely unaffected by the bumpy 8 mile trek on the back of a trailer and once the hive doors were unsealed it was business as usual. Hive populations construct a ‘map’ of the area in which they forage, normally a distance of up to 3 miles from the hive, knowledge of which is passed between workers though the release of pheromones and through ‘dancing’.
Every so often the beekeepers get together to extract honey from the frames of honey comb that their bees have produced. I attended a honey extraction in Newbiggin village hall in Cumbria last week. When bees are satisfied that cells are completely filled with honey they seal the top with a wax cap and in this way store food for the winter months. Beekeepers need to cut off this cap with a hot knife to expose the honey-rich comb. Uncapped frames are slotted into a metal drum and spun by electric motor so that the honey is flung out of the comb to dribble down the inside and collect at the bottom. It can then be tapped off. A productive hive can produce dozens of jars of honey.
This is an extremely complex subject so with the help of the excellent “Little Book of Bees” by Karl Weiss I have managed to get my head around some of the basics.
Honeybee colonies are regarded as ‘superorganisms’, where each insect is the equivalent to a single cell functioning within a complex organism, a synapse in a thinking brain. At the height of summer a healthy hive can contain up to 80,000 bees. Each bee has a distinctive role to play – the queen is an egg-laying machine, the male drones impregnate the queen, the female workers serve the queen and care for the young brood. This brood is reared in combs of wax cells made by the workers from glands on the underside of their abdomen. Each tubular cell is hexagonal in form, 5.37mm across for developing worker bees, 6.91mm for the larger drones, tilted at an angle of 13 degrees to prevent honey from oozing out.
Worker bees develop within such cells in exactly 21 days and then spend a further 21 days within the hive, feeding larvae and building wax cells before leaving the hive to collect nectar and pollen from flowering plants. They can also collect water to cool the hive, and tree resin to mix with wax to make ‘propolis’ which is used to repair the hive walls or to embalm invaders such as shrews and death’s head hawkmoths.
Nectar is a sweet, sugary liquid produced by flowering plants to attract pollinating insects. It is processed within the bee’s stomach to form honey which is regurgitated into comb cells as food for the hive. Flower pollen is attracted to the bee’s body and inadvertently transferred to other flowers to enable plant fertilisation. Most flowering and fruiting plants, including many key food plants for humans, rely on bees to enable them to reproduce. Bees also collect pollen as a further food source for the hive.
Queen bees develop in a small wax sack attached to the comb. There is normally only one queen in a hive and she is bigger than the worker bees with an elongated body designed for egg production. A young queen will leave the hive on a number of occasions to mate with the male drones who follow her high into the air. The courtship flight has never been witnessed by humans.
Margaret marking the queen bee for easy identification.