Since humans first started exploring art as a form of expression, communication, and record-keeping the they’ve taken inspiration from the natural world, specifically the honey bee. Even as far back as the Stone Age, cave paintings depict honey hunters, showing a more than 8000-year-old relationship between us and Apis mellifera. This long-standing relationship evolved over the years as we developed new technology. The daily structure of our lives changed, but bee art never went away; it just changed.
From depictions on stone, cataloging everyday life to the more interpretive art installations in our modern museums, bee imagery figures prominently in all mediums. You can find bee art in the form of photography, paintings, sculpture, graffiti, and beyond. Let’s take a look at some of the notable examples throughout history.
One of the earliest examples of bee art comes from rock paintings in eastern Spain, from 8000-2000 BC. These paintings depict men climbing a cliff face on rope ladders. It is clear these paintings demonstrate honey harvesting activities.
Paintings from South Africa and Rhodesia, created by the Bushmen during Stone Age, also depict honey hunting activities performed by hunter-gatherers far from the cliffs of eastern Spain.
Stone paintings from this time period from Australia and India show a burgeoning relationship with bees. These paintings occurred simultaneously and in parts of the world with seemingly no connection.
The art itself differs, depending on the environment from where artists created it. These images show people in the hunter-gatherer stage of human lifestyle development, years away from the domestication of bees. You won’t see any veils or commercial hives in these paintings.
The Renaissance, from the 14th to 16th centuries in Europe embodied the magical, spiritual, and mythological nature of bees. Bees served as a symbol or even a lesson, in certain pieces.
One such piece, “Venus With Cupid Stealing Honey” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, harkens back to Roman mythology. In this oil painting on panel, Venus stands next to her son Cupid who has stolen honeycomb from a hive in a tree trunk. He appears in distress, after sustaining a handful of bee stings.
The sting of a bee serves as an analogy for the dangers of pleasure.
Another piece from 1673 by Juan De Valdes Leal called “Miracle of the Bees” depicts Saint Ambrose as a baby in Rome. A swarm of bees climbs about his face and into his mouth. This swarm departs the room, leaving the small saint unharmed.
Thus art served as a visual history of one man’s sainthood, cataloging a moment of significance during his holy life.
Bees were not the subjects of Renaissance paintings, but rather creatures in the background, supporting the true subject’s godliness.
The bee art we see today trends towards macro photography, public art installations, and seasonal exhibits at art museums. Often, the goal of the art is to educate and bring awareness to the plight of Apis mellifera, not solely for entertainment or beauty.
In one case from 2018, the artist used bees as a backdrop for bringing a community together around a favorite football (European) team. But, sometimes bees are more than just the backdrop, but rather become the foundation for an immersive experience.
Artist Wolfgang Buttress presented a bee-related art installation at the World Expo in 2015. This large installation later found its home at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, England. Stretching dozens of feet into the air and weighing 44 tons, it’s a sight to behold. The artist crafted it out of aluminum and connected it to an accelerometer. This device records the activities of the bees. Then, these activities activate sounds and lights on the main structure.
The purpose of this piece? To bring awareness to the interdependence of humans on bees.
Another art piece, located outside the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota combines art, science, and engineering to create a series of interconnected working hives. The team behind this venture created this piece to be enjoyable to look at but also to literally support native bee populations.
Part of their design efforts focuses on longevity, not just creating an art piece for a season, but an art piece that can support pollinators and continue to support pollinators over time.
Some modern bee art becomes art secondary to helping bees.
In Manhattan, there is a handful of brightly colored and designed hives in the Battery Conservancy. These beehives were designed to look like different types of buildings in historical New York City and form a Bee Village.
Beekeepers care for these hives that are part of a larger ecosystem designed to support pollinators in the conservancy.
Bee art isn’t going anywhere anytime soon but it is increasingly used to educate and to directly support the bees. It is clear humans appreciate the precise engineering of a piece of honeycomb, the buzz of a bee on a flower, or the anatomy of our favorite pollinators. That appreciation transcends mere enjoyment and becomes a tool for persuading others to take the plight of pollinators seriously.
Whether bee art succeeds at that aim is yet to be determined, but we at Beepods believe in the power of education.
If you’re in Wisconsin and looking to increase your knowledge and appreciation for honey bees, visit the Wisconsin Union and check out Nancy Mackos bee-related art. It is featured from March 16th through November 15th and is a great opportunity to see the newest bee art.