Consider the honeybee. Not as an automaton in a honey factory, but as a remarkable social insect and pollinator indissolubly tied to food security — and to the artistic imagination. So asks the poet John Burnside in his incisive essay on the bee in culture in this week’s Books and Arts.
Burnside points out how, as colony collapse disorder decimates hives worldwide, poets and artists are revealing anew the multifaceted relationship of the bee and us. The subtly beautiful limited-edition artbook Melissographia, a collaboration between Burnside and British multimedia artist Amy Shelton, for instance, interweaves poems, pollen maps, botanical samples and illustrations.
Shelton notes on her website that she works in the “strong artistic tradition in England of ‘unseen landscapes’” by focusing on the beehive — “a locus of wildness fusing with human culture”. The lightbox installations of Shelton’s Florilegium: Honeyflow illuminate scores of nectar-rich wildflower specimens in the order they bloom through the bee season — in the process spotlighting the loss of 97% of Britain’s wildflower meadows in the past 75 years.
Shelton also runs Honeyscribe, an educational project offering children the chance to learn about our dependence on pollinators and the wonders of the hive. (One eight-year-old attendee, Shelton tells me, said of standing near the beehives that “it was like it was snowing bees. It was beautiful.”)
In ancient Egypt, honeyscribes monitored the harvests of the hives. But the bee, fierce as well as beneficent, was also symbolically tied to royalty. As the emblem of lower Egypt, the insect became part of the iconography of governance: that region’s crown, the deshret, sports a spring-like protuberance resembling a bee’s proboscis.
Underneath these lofty goings-on, the honeybee remained knitted in to quotidian existence round the world, as Eva Crane (1912-2007) documented in classics such as the World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (1999; reprinted 2011). (Crane, a quantum mathematician, directed the International Bee Research Association for 35 years and worked on apian science in more than 60 countries.)
Crane’s research points to the Aegean as a fountainhead of beekeeping. I recently had a visceral reminder of the region’s elemental and ongoing link to bees in Mani, one of the tattered ribbons of land that blow south from the Peloponnese. As I walked the flank of the rock-strewn Sangias range among wild orchids, scabious and euphorbia, the earth itself seemed to reverberate. It was the hum of millions of honeybees at work round the wooden hives of village cooperatives. Apis mellifera, still only half-tamed, remains at home in this ferocious landscape.
Amy Shelton’s lightbox artworks, Florilegium: Honey Flow, can be seen at the Wellcome Kitchen, the Wellcome Collection’s new restaurant at 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.