Beehavior challenges the audience to pay close attention to these little creatures that share our backyards and playgrounds and to appreciate them in ways beyond their lullaby humming.
The exhibition at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs includes sculpture, photography and audio and visual pieces, each of which engages the audience differently. According to art director, Florence McEwin, “Ashley Hope Carlisle is an installation artist who creates meaningful three-dimensional spaces that relate to nature as both inspiration and question.”
The installation is an outgrowth of a cross-disciplinary collaboration between Ashley Hope Carlisle, associate professor of art in sculpture at University of Wyoming and Dr. Michael Dillon, associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology at UW. In combining art with science the project researches how bumblebees thrive in a variety of environments while inviting the public to connect with these amazing creatures.
Sculptures of magnified bee parts — a three-foot bee leg, stingers, wings, eyes — dominate one part of the exhibit. One piece that stands out is a sculpture of a bee stinger, about six inches long. The details are exquisite in that you can see the intricate musculature encasing the stinger. At the base of the sculpture lies the root of the stinger which lies deep within the body of the bee. When the bee stings, the stinger is dislodged, ripping itself from the bee’s body and killing it. Thus the sacrifice for the colony is on display in this piece. The realness of the sculpture, reminiscent of something one might find in a natural history museum, evokes an empathy for the creature and its duty to the hive.
It’s hard to take these animals for granted after examining the meticulousness with which they are constructed. Their myriad delicate, tiny parts can inflict serious pain, pollinate crops worldwide, and produce the sweetest nectar.
The work prompts contemplation of the elegance and complexity of nature’s solutions. This art evokes memories of a bee sting in a grandparents’ backyard on a sunny, summer day and of the honey that soothed a sore throat or topped off a hot toddy on an autumn evening.
Gardeners will appreciate the other sculptures which detail several varieties of pollen. Made from painted wood, they are roughly the size of baseballs. One looks like a virus: a pointed sphere, obviously designed to attach itself to the hairs of bee legs. Another is shaped like a capsule, long and narrow and pockmarked like a lunar surface. The unique structure of each flower’s pollen speaks to the complexity of the bees’ relationship with their food sources and the timelessness of evolution that has brought the bee and the flower together, collaborating for mutual survival. What we see as that yellow stuff packed onto bee legs is composed of beautiful geometric shapes sculpted by millions of years of evolution to accomplish a vital task for each flower — reproduction. The sculptures alert us to the beauty of designs that surround us, even those we can’t see with our own eyes.
And that is where the work shapes itself into something more: a consideration of the impact these little fluffy, buzzy neighbors have on humans and on the ecosystem we call Earth.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, bees contribute to cross-pollination, a process that “helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.” Yet, “researchers estimate that nearly one-third of all honey bee colonies in the United States have vanished. The number of hives in the United States is now at its lowest point in the past 50 years.”
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From the familiar plants that populate our landscape to our food supply, bees play a critical role in our world. Carlisle and Dillon have set out to raise our awareness of these indispensable creatures, and by merging art with science, their work is sure to connect with a broad audience.
Coming away from the installation, I find myself lost in contemplation, not only about our relationship with bees, but our relationship with the planet we inhabit. Bees represent those parts of our world that we are destroying with short-sighted policy and greed. Beehavior confronts us with the consequences of our choices and actions. I hope doing so will help us make better choices about ourselves, our neighbors on this planet, and all our futures.
Josh Grant is a bee lover and former hive member. He teaches English at Western Wyoming Community College.