Bees and artists team up with help from a Winnipeg friend

Art by Gregory Beatty

Sylvia Thompson

Between Us
Art Gallery of Regina
Opens Jan. 18

Veteran gallery-goers will remember Winnipeg artist Aganetha Dyck’s summer 1997 exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. The show was in the hardwood Kenderdine Gallery and featured signature sculptures from her fashion and figurine series, along with one work in progress — a wedding dress, I think.

To enable that to proceed, the MacKenzie cut a hole in a back wall and extended a clear plastic pipe from the display case so Dyck’s collaborators (which numbered in the thousands) could access the meadow behind the gallery. Once outside, they foraged for raw materials, which they then chemically transformed in their stomachs, and regurgitated to add to the dress.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, Dyck is internationally known for her sculptural works created in collaboration with honeybees — where she places objects of varying types (high heels, purses, kitsch knickknacks, trophies) inside hives, and the bees build honeycomb and beeswax on them.

Dyck doesn’t have any work in Between Us. But she was instrumental in the show’s creation, says Art Gallery of Regina curator Sandee Moore.

Honey Hotbed

Moore attended the University of Regina and graduated with her MFA in 2002. After that, she moved to Winnipeg, where she lived for 10 years.

“I did meet and get to know Aganetha while I was in Winnipeg,” says Moore. “When I began working here I was interested in looking at Saskatchewan artists. Even though Aganetha has lived in Winnipeg for many years and is from Manitoba, she actually became an artist while living in Prince Albert [in the early 1970s]. I thought that was an interesting story that challenges the idea you need to go to a city like New York to gain the international acclaim she has.”

Moore reached out to Dyck in the fall of 2019. “Aganetha is in her 80s now and she told me she’s not making art anymore, and didn’t want to exhibit,” says Moore. “Instead, what she really wanted to do was work with other artists and share what she learned over the 20 years she worked with honeybees.”

The mentorship was done through e-mail, with a few group Zoom meetings. To recruit artists Moore contacted curators at several regional galleries including Swift Current, Yorkton and P.A.  In the end, 12 artists/collectives were selected. Eleven were visual artists, and there was one musical duo, Lost Birds from North Portal.

To begin the project, the artists met with Saskatchewan’s apiculture specialist and several regional beekeepers through Zoom to learn about bee behaviour and review safety procedures.

“We provided them with a bee suit and veil,” says Moore. “In most cases, artists made something to be placed in the hive so we discussed what sorts of materials are safe. Something made of fur or wool, for instance, wouldn’t be appropriate because it would upset the bees by reminding them of a predator like a skunk getting into the hive, and it could cause them to swarm and desert the hive.”

Saskatchewan, as it turns out, is a honey hotbed in Canada. Fully 70 per cent of Canadian honey comes from southern Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“We did a pilot in the summer of 2020 where we had two artists and one beekeeper, and worked through how the project should actually unfold,” says Moore. “How much contact should the artists have with the bees and beekeeper, how long it might take, and what will happen.”

That summer ended up being extremely dry, so the bees didn’t build much honeycomb. Then there was a hard winter and a lot of apiaries lost bees. One beekeeper even had to drop out.

Fortunately, other beekeepers were able to lend hives to the artists for the summers of 2021/2022.

“Canola is like a clock that determines the beekeeping calendar,” says Moore. “So that’s when art works were placed in the hives, during the canola bloom.”

As the bees worked to gather pollen, artists had the option, in consultation with Dyck, to visit the hive and consider ways to shape the work.

“Aganetha has a number of pithy phrases, and one thing she said about working with bees is ‘there are no secrets, only surprises’,” says Moore. “It’s a really interesting and challenging collaboration for the artists because the bees will never do what our human mind will conceive of. They have their own apian logic.”

Scientists have been doing some fascinating research with bees lately examining their cognitive capacity and hive behaviour. Bees, it turns out, can count to at least five, and when one finds a food source, they communicate the location to other hive members through a form of interpretive dance.

The bees’ innate intelligence, and “hive” mind, made for some interesting collaborations, says Moore.

“Kelly Litzenberger built a LEGO replica of a skateboard shop that he once owned in Yorkton,” says Moore. “He had this vision the bees would occupy it like workers in his store. What they did instead was fill up the structure with honeycomb. He found himself in this funny negotiation with the bees where he would undo their work and scrape away some of the honeycomb because he wanted to see this LEGO reproduction of his store.”

To build honeycomb, the Last Birds put a coiled microphone in their hive. But being musicians interested in sound, they also made audio recordings of the bees.

“What’s interesting there is that bees don’t use their vocal cords and instruments like human musicians do,” says Moore. “Instead, they use body parts like their wings and legs to generate sound. There are all these questions, like what is voice, what is music, what is song?”

To dramatize the collaborative nature of the project, Regina artist Jeff Meldrum even drafted a formal contract, which he presented to the bees.

“Now, if you put a piece of paper in a hive the bees would just chew it up and spit it out, so he took a piece of wood and used pyrography to burn letters into the wood. The contract described what each party’s responsibilities were in this collaboration,” says Moore.

“He left a place for the bees to sign, and they did sign by building some honeycomb on the spot. But they also built a line of honeycomb stretching from one side to the other. It was as if they were just crossing out a whole clause and saying, ‘Oh, this doesn’t meet our needs. No thank you.’”

To extend the bee theme, Moore is using bee boxes (or honey supers) as display supports. Some sculptures will be open air, so in addition to being a visual and (in the case of Last Birds) audio treat, you’ll be able to savour the intoxicating smell of the honeycomb and beeswax.

But no touching! Or tasting! No matter how tempting it might be.

Between Us opens at Art Gallery of Regina on Wednesday Jan. 18 and runs until March 5. ■