Melliferopolis – collaborating with uncontrollable, flying, stinging insects

Melliferopolis1 – Honeybees in Urban Environments – is ongoing artistic research that intertwines bees and arts on the canvas of the city. Melliferopolis is set between nature and civilization; it experiments with new ways of understanding bees, beekeeping and the ecology of the hive. The project explores the role of bees in urban contexts as well as the manifold relation between mankind and these semi-wild animals. Melliferopolis creates shared spaces for bees and humans and facilitates encounters through interactive installations in public space and through other visible actions like lectures, participative workshops, rituals or performances.


In the project we create an experiential space for exploring human-nature relations2 at the borders of the familiar and the uncertain, the tame and the wild, the fearful and the fascination-filled. Work within and amongst these polarities describes exactly Melliferopolis' research material. In this sense the project taps into the understanding of the Chthulucene3 as described by Donna Haraway, a world where multispecies stories and “making kin” become the only meaningful way of being in this world of precarious times. For humans, keeping bees in the city means negotiating space, being confronted with wilderness but also staying connected with a species that has already “walked a long way” with mankind and is nevertheless so alien to us. Allowing these entities into our everyday life can be seen as a proposal to “stay with the trouble”, an attempt to redefine our understanding of how we relate to our biosphere.


Insects – these species so alien to most humans, uncontrollable in nature and hard to grasp for their collective actions – arouse our fascination and at the same time provoke anxiety, disgust or repulsion. The ongoing work with honeybees originates from personal discomfort around seemingly ungovernable, flying, stinging insects and from a desire to find ways to overcome this fear.


The artistic research presented in this paper follows an auto-ethnograhical4 approach, involving self-observation and reflexive investigation. It originates from practice-based fieldwork and will therefore be based on anecdotal episodes, examples and incidents that were observed throughout the years. 

 

1. Risk versus Safety

Risk has become one of the defining obsessions of modern society. Almost daily, we are preoccupied with assessing, discussing, or preventing a wide variety of risks. In Wikipedia, risk is defined as the potential for gaining or losing something of value. The concept is applied in many different ways and used by insurance companies or banks when assessing the monetary value of a potentially dangerous situation. But besides financial wealth, social status or emotional well-being can also be at risk.


However, risk can also be defined as the intentional interaction with uncertainty,uncertainty being a potential, unpredictable, and uncontrollable outcome and risk being the consequence of action taken in spite of uncertainty5.


Risk perception is the subjective judgment people make about the severity and likelihood of a risk, and may vary from person to person.

Gradually, our society has come to establish a dense mesh of health-and-safety regulations that support our risk aversion attitude and our need to eliminate even minor risks. These regulations are important features of a non-risk society and culture and sustain the widespread cultural values of avoiding risk and denying death. In turn, they themselves are validated and sustained by these values.6 


However, this quest for a risk-free society and its many expressions might lead us to a miserable existence. Dame Judith Hackitt has argued that children suffer under an “excessively risk-averse” culture in schools, which stifles their readiness for the real world: “Overprotective parents and risk-averse teachers who do not enable children to learn to handle risk will lead to young adults who are poorly equipped to deal with the realities of the world around them, unable to discern real risk from trivia, not knowing who they can trust or believe.”7


At this point, it is helpful to consider Julian Reid’s thoughts on resilience and security and, in particular his essay on “Resilience and the Art of Living Dangerously”.8 With his argument that “living systems cannot, by definition, be secured from dangers, because their very capacity to go on living depends, fundamentally, not on their freedom from danger but on their exposure to danger” – we are introduced to a concept somehow opposed to the aim duscussed above of avoiding risks.


Exposure to danger is a constitutive process in the development of living systems, and thus their problem is not how to secure themselves from it but how to develop the resilience which enables them to absorb the perturbations, disturbances, and changes in their structure which occur in the process of their exposure to it.


The concept of resilience is utilized by the UN9 to describe the capacity whereby peoples ‘exposed to hazard’ instead of securing themselves from disasters, learn how to adapt to them. Hence, developing states must demonstrate their ‘good governance’ to the UN by proving not that they are able to secure their societies from dangers but that they have taken steps to render them resilient in their exposure to them.


In the context of Melliferopolis and the findings that led to this paper, our observations are linked to the work with honeybees in urban contexts and are hence connected with the concepts of urbanization and livelihood in cities as well as the dissociation of “nature” or the control of natural occurrences in the anthropocene. When speaking of risk and safety in this particular context, I see two predominant aspects to the issue:


First, the nature of risk, and our understanding of it, has undergone tremendous change owing to the creation of new dangers in the era of industrialization. As Ulrich Beck states, industrial society has created many new dangers of risks unknown in previous ages.10

“In the Earlier, there was no absence of risk. But these risks were natural dangers or hazards. ...But, the risks in the modern society are created by our own social development and by the development of science and technology. Sometimes, we fail to ascertain the risk involved in a particular aspect of technology. For instance, no one quite knows what risks are involved in the production of genetically modified foods.”


Secondly, an ever larger percentage of the world population lives in cities. (See UN World's urbanization prospect11). These environments are managed and controlled mostly by human rule and often tend to suffer from over-determination aiming at safety, order and control. The phenomenon has been described by Richard Sennett in Uses of Disorder12 where he argues how an excessively ordered community freezes adults into rigid attitudes that stifle personal growth. Cities fail to meet society’s needs when they are over-determined both regarding their visual forms and their social functions, leaving no opportunity to be adapted or used creatively by their citizens.


This idea can be taken further by including non-human “citizens” into the picture. With increasing urbanization, outdoor environments have become more and more shaped by the needs of human city dwellers rather than in acordance with ecological expressions or necessities. "Nature" has been subdued to anthropocentric needs; this includes management of fauna and flora to a large extent and can lead to ecological alienation13.


This increase of control results in a heigthened perception of safety and comfort for city dwellers and to the reassurance that many risks posed by uncontrolled nature can be contained. Wild animals, poisonous snakes or stinging insects, as well as unwanted vegetal growth – like dangerously pending tree branches, stinging nettles or overhanging bushes with possibly staining fruit – are becoming rare in urbanized environments.


Helsinki is a good example of this development. City surfaces are strictly managed, green areas are contained and controlled, public spaces are fenced and patrolled by security services with the aim of avoiding unexpected situations and thereby of increasing safety.


When Melliferopolis started its activities in 2012, the urban beekeeping boom had not yet reached the cities of the North. At that time in Helsinki, only a few other hives had been installed and they were on rooftops, in private gardens and other publicly rather inaccessible areas.

When introducing beehives in public urban places that are not secured by fences or warning signs, the concept of safety is challenged. Since bees do not belong to the class of animals that we consider as pets (we would not think of watching TV with them and they cannot be entirely managed) a sort of wilderness or raw cosmic energy as expressed by Braidottis is re-introduced into urban managed environments when beehives are installed14.The sensation of being safe in the city – a familiar environment to so many – is disturbed by having to deal with uncontrollable animals – and ones which inspire in us the fear of a sting, with all the consequences can arise from one. 

 

The comfort of being in a controlled, air-conditioned, regulated and overseen environment suggests safety and predictability. However, this subjectively perceived security bears certain risks in itself, as it seems to make us less alert to unforeseeable situations. 

Absurd incidences occur when these concepts need to be translated into insurance contracts. The main aim of such contracts is to assess the monetary value of an incident, and therefore, the risk to be insured has to be clearly calculable.

Anecdotal Episode 1 – Insurances

In the beginnings of Melliferopolis’ activities and the first year of introducing experimental beehives in the cities of Helsinki and Espoo, the hives were installed in three public places. It was a requirment that we should obtain insurance for the beehives and for potential harm they might cause to city inhabitants. When negotiating the contract and explaining the situation to the insurance agency, it seemed at first impossible to insure such an item – a beehive with 60,000 individuals during the summer months. The bees were foraging and flying in a radius of up to 5 km distance from the hive and almost each of these individuals was capable of stinging. Surveillance and control of these insects was practically impossible. The potential danger for a person being stung would deadly in case of a strong allergic reaction, and the risk for the city environment was too high. The insurance company did not agree to a contract.

 

Only when, in the course of the conversation, it became clear that the three Melliferopolis hives were not the only hives in the Metropolitan area did the possibility arise for a contract. In the event that someone would ever get stung, it would be practically impossible to prove from which hive the stinging individual originated, and therefore no unambiguous claim to the insurance company could be filed and they would not be responsible for covering the damage. The deal was done and the hives were insured.

 

 

A particular angle on the notion of risk and safety arises when children are involved. 

Parents, teachers, kindergarten educators, etc. sense potential danger for children everywhere and in every thing and might react by becoming overprotective. When this attitude is expressed in anxiety and communicated to the children, consciously or subconsciously, it can have serious – even fatal – consequences. Children are sensitive and might pick up the adults' agitation which can escalate into panicking behaviour, both of the children and the grown-ups. Additionally, a lack of insect literacy15 results in bees, wasps and othersi getting mixed up in people’s minds which creates great confusion and adds to the fear.
This latent anxiety is often enhanced by warning signs, alarming colors and symbols placed around potentially dangerous sites. City beehives usually come with heavy warnings, but are preferably placed in remote locations or behind fences to try and avoid any unwanted, unpredictable encounters.

Both the particular geographic location and the cultural context can have an effect on how an urban honeybee project is perceived. Around the world, a great many projects with and for honeybees have been established. Inviting a strong community aspect into the design of the project, facilitates educational work and creates a sense of ownership of the bees, their pastures and the wellbeing of the ecosystem for the participants.
Melliferopolis is based in Helsinki with a Northern Continental climate which shortens the active bee season and the visibility of the project to a maximum of four-to-five months per year. As Melliferopolis started in 2012, and is laid out as a long term initiative, by now the semi-permanent installations in the centre of the city have become well-known and widely accepted.

2. Fear and Fascination – the individual's responsibility

At the border of the familiar and the uncertain, half-knowledge can create situations that feel very unsafe. Although education is not Melliferopolis' main goal, the project aims to illuminate the bees' life and open the subject to the public in various ways. Visitors are given the chance to learn about bees, their environments and their potential danger through playful, artistic interventions that are participatory. However, absolute guarantees of safety cannot be given and therefore the responsibility stays with each individual.
With experimental beehive installations, Melliferopolis offers an open invitation to the visitor: he or she should approach as close as feels comfortable, assessing their fears towards these animals, allowing ambiguous sensations to be part of the visit and calculating for themselves how far they are comforatable with the risk of a painful sting – with possibly mortal consequences (due to anaphylactic shock in case of a strong allergic reaction). These are key concepts of our artistic explorations and raise questions about an individual’s responsibility for their own actions, how they deal with fears and how they sense their proper capabilities and limitations.
 
Melliferopolis deliberately creates a situation of potential risk and leaves it up to the visitor to expose himself to the potential danger or avoid it. Individuals are left with the choice of approaching the potentially risky installation or staying at a distance. Thus the responsibility of the individual to assess his own response and to deal with the consequences of that response is called into action.

 

3. Control versus Wilderness

Working with biological systems and non-human agents always involves various aspects of unpredictability. Life phenomena – birth and death, plants in blossom, the emergence of a swarm – do not follow precise time-frames or rules, but are informed by a variety of conditions. A city ambience strictly follows man-made codes and essentially obeys the laws of civilization and society. Seeking to conserve such an essentially artifical situation of order, requires a belief in the possibility of controlling and managing time and space.
 
By contrast, a beehive can be maintained, but not fully controlled. Even the most experienced beekeepers can get surprises thanks to the unexpected activities of their colonies. The bees follow their own rhythms, spatial logic and laws – dynamics that evoke both awe and fear, especially when we are not familiar with the subject.
 
Melliferopolis’ practice demarcates a space where the visitors are exposed to the complex sensorial phenomenon of honeybees. The familiar environment and intellectual framework of the city ambience is complemented with uncertainty and the unknown. Presented as an installation in public space it evokes a certain suspense. As a consequence, a visitor can feel interest and curiosity, tranquility and surprise, but at the same time might experience fear, disgust or repulsion.
This bouquet of sensations is triggered by the encounter with the strange, rare or unexpected that is to be found in nature. The visitors are invited to delve into a space that transcends anthropocentric, intellectual understanding, measurability or predictability. The project researches the boundary between fascination and repulsion and the way in which these two opposites may melt into one ambiguous experience, evoked by the unbounded, excessive, or chaotic character of a phenomenon such as that of a colony of bees.

 

Hive Five Sound Pic Nica Melliferopolis event at the Hexa-Hive

During a hot August day in 2013, a jamming session and sound picnic was set up. Sounds collected on contact microphones inside the hive and microphones placed in front of the flying hole were mixed with ambient music.

Anecdotal Episode 2 – Kindergarten Visit

In the vicinity of Tarja Halonen Park, Helsinki, where the Hexa-Hive Village with Airstrip for Bees is installed, there is a kindergarten. The teachers were very keen on visiting the installation with the children and seeing the hive and the flowering bed. Melliferopolis organized a guided visit for them and explained the role of pollinators and flowers. The teachers were ignorant the difference between wasps, bees and bumblebees, and rather unaware of the danger of getting stung by a bee. The situation was therefore relaxed and later we heard via parents who were also friends that the visit had been very exciting and informative for the children.

The Hexa-Hive – a Melliferopolis concept

The Hexa-Hive is a hive for bees and Man. The hives are designed to mimic the hexagonal shape of individual cells in honeycombs. Their functioning wooden bee boxes take many forms, including seats placed around the grounds for humans to rest and look about themselves in the vicinity of the bees' activity. Without explanations or signed instructions, visitors are invited to use the installation following their own intuition or desire.
This invitation to pause in the proximity of the hive allows the visitor to see and hear the bees activity, and to marvel at their emotional response to the beauty and potential peril. What happens if s/he gets stung?

"Eat like a Bee" and "Explore like a Bee" – an artwork by Charli Clark


Charli sees honey not just as a food bank, but as one of the ways that bees share information and create knowledge concerning their local environment. The summer bees leave behind a record for the bees born later on, creating a library containing vital pieces of the bee colony’s societal history.
 
Based on an analysis of honey from deceased beehives in Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden from July and August 2015, Charli has created foraging maps and a discovery station in Kaisaniemi. These interventions were part of the Melliferopolis Fest activity in the summer 2016.

In 2014, in the framework of the activities in Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden of Helsinki, Melliferopolis designed, created and exhibited the Bee Ark, an experimental hive that defies human management, as it cannot be accessed. With the colony living inside this hive, Melliferopolis was planning a “swarming event” – an invitation to join and experience the natural event that is the birth of a bee colony16.


Witnessing a swarm flying out of its hive is rare – especially in the city, because beekeepers manage their bees and take measures to prevent swarming from happening. Swarming is an essential part of the natural process of reproduction in honeybees. For most people, it leaves a deep impression to experience a swarm of bees leaving their nest to look for new living quarters. This uncontrollable act is part of a new honeybee colony’s birth and gives an insight into the collective behavior of a self-organized system.


When swarming takes place, a good part of the existing colony, numbering 10,000, sometimes 20,000 animals, clusters in front of the hive and then sets off in a concerted move, like a black cloud with a loud noise. As if by a magic signal, all bees congregate on a nearby branch and settle like some big dark grape, hanging onto each other. At this point, the decision-taking process starts and sometimes within a few hours a new house is found, agreed upon by consensus. The assembly takes off again in a flying cluster to move into their new home17. This process has oftentimes been observed and described by beekeepers and scientists; it remainsa phenomenon that provokes amazement through its fluidity and the particularity of each individual occurence.


When bees decide to swarm, they are unprotected and exposed. At that moment, their main goal of finding a hive is pursued with a certain urgency – it needs to be achieved before they get hungry or the weather changes. Therefore, bees in a swarm are fixed on this goal and are otherwise docile and innocuous. Some apiculturists collect them with their bare hands to put them into a box and take them home. However, the public perception of a dark cloud of bees, seemingly out of control, humming with a loud noise is one of a phenomen that poses great danger. Unfortunately, knowledge about swarming is very limited and the somewhat counter-intuitive realisation that bees are at their least threatening when involved in this process is not widely held.

 

4. Imposed Schedules versus Natural Time

The health or activity of a colony of honeybees is highly dependent on weather, climate and the condition of the immediate environment. It is therefore impossible to define sharp deadlines or pre-defined moments when activities must happen18. In the context of artistic interventions, this challenges schedules and programming, which artistic producers find difficult to deal with.
Melliferopolis welcomes the idea of chance or coincidence and plays with it as a concept. Going along with nature's time-keeping means playing with the principles of insecurity or volatility and with the risk of not being in control or on time.
The subjects of Melliferopolis are life phenomena – bees, plants in blossom, the emergence of a swarm. Therefore, as with any biological system, it is important to respect nature's time-keeping, allowing to let go of some control. This attitude is also reflected in planning and designing activities to leave space for improvisation and for some events to emerge spontaneously.

Death
Honeybees are not endemic in Finland. Only in the Westernmost part of the coastal areas, at certain moments in history,  have they been reported living there independently, without human support. The climate of the North is harsh for the overwintering of honeybees and the short flowering season does not help the situation. Since the 1980s, honeybee populations have also been struggling with the Varroa mite, an imported parasite that attacks honeybee colonies and functions as a pathogen vector. The reported winter losses of colonies in Europe, but especially in the Northern regions, have climbed to over 30%19. In the many years of Melliferopolis' activities, the project also suffered losses of hives and colonies. This is unpleasant but, again, when working with biological systems, it is a reality that needs to be faced. In the course of the Melliferopolis project, this difficulty was accepted and it actually inspired the production of an art piece, by Charli Clark.

Key Words:
urban beekeeping; environmental art; biological art; non-human agents; ecopsychology; Melliferopolis; Hexa-Hives; fear; wilderness; unpredictability, urban acupuncture; risk and safety; resilience; disorder; city management;  controllability; swarming; biological systems; risk avoidance; Anthropocene; Chtulucene; urbanisation; self organized behaviour; emergence;

Anecdotal Episode 3 - Swarm in the Parking Lot

In the summer of 2013, a honeybee swarm landed in a parking lot in the centre of Brussels. A mother who was with her children in the parking lot was very alarmed when she saw the large number of flying dark insects and rushed the kids into the car. Then, we explained. Suddenly her fear was transformed and she got her children from the car to witness this phenomenon. When information is passed on, people are immediately impressed, enchanted, and feel lucky to see this!

Anecdotal Episode 4 – Staging the Swarming Event: 

In a hive that cannot be accessed by humans, bees will swarm following their natural impulse of reproducing. Inviting an audience to view this natural spectacle is the idea behind the Swarming Event. It could be seen assimilar to an invitation to admire the blossoming of a plant that flowers only rarely. Melliferopolis issues invitations to the swarming event and, in so doing, stages a natural phenomenon that is enticing and uncanny at the same time.

5. Conclusions

Melliferopolis aims at deepening our appreciation of the intrinsic value of honeybees, reaching beyond the reductionist view of bees as eco-system service providers and honey-producers by using artistic interventions20. The emphasis lies in offering authentic experiences of natural phenomena, mediated through formats outside of conventional art venues. Interfaces for encounters between humans and honeybees are created within a multi-species narrative.
 
These interventions are created working with biological systems and with animals that cannot entirely be controlled or managed. The risks contained in this work range from the unpredictability of a beehive failing to survive the winter or disappearing altogether to the genuine possibility of being stung, from the impossibility of assigning exact times and schedules to events to the possibly chaotic consequences of surprise at the emergence of a swarm in the city.
Melliferopolis is deliberately playing with unpredictability, insecurity and an intrinsic approach of letting go of control so as to allow visitors to be exposed to a authentic situation, right in the urban context where they are living.

This proposal challenges the entire philosophy of risk avoidance, a concept adopted by our society that manifests itself in, e.g. the over-determination urban living spaces, the over protection of children and an exaggerated trust in health-and-safety regulations.
The world of insects is alien and fascinating and, through playful experiments, Melliferopolis invites the visitor to explore this unfamiliar world, complete with all its risks.


Melliferopolis was launched in the Helsinki metropolitan area in 2012 and has been active in Finland and Europe through workshops, installations and other public interventions as well as exhibitions and academic contributions.

http://melliferopolis.net