Wannabee artists and buzzy beards

So you thought bees just made honey and pollinated flowers? They can also be pretty creative, writes Patricia Cleveland-Peck
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bees inspire eccentricity. Certainly the Canadian artist Aganetha Dyck is crazy about them. She has spent the summer "collaborating" with more than 500,000 bees in a most unusual project, the results of which are now on show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Basically she places domestic objects such as shoes and teapots (even, at one stage, a park bench) within beehives and waits for the bees to coat them with honeycomb and wax. She then removes these objects and works on them, transforming them into shadowy, strangely disturbing artworks.

Her artistic career began in the early Eighties, when her early shows displayed everyday objects transformed into works of art by some form of domestic reprocessing - shrunken sweaters and bottled, fried and canned buttons, for example.

On a visit to the local Manitoba Bee Works to buy supplies she saw a text on the wall: "Bee Made Honey" - an obvious enough statement, except that the sign itself appeared to have been carved from honeycomb. When she learnt that it had been created by the bees themselves - on a mould placed in the hive - she realised the inherent possibilities of working "in collaboration" with bees. Last year she produced her most ambitious installation, The Extended Wedding Party, which is currently touring Holland. This consists of gowns, shoes, coats and a glass wedding dress which have been transformed by bees into unsettling images of change and decay.

In Yorkshire she worked for two months with local beekeepers to produce items that she feels signify the park itself. "I thought about what the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is about," she said. "It is natural, but at the same time man-made. Rather like the bees: they're in the hive, not their natural place. Then I thought of the people who visit the park and what they sometimes leave behind: things like shoes. Then I thought of what they do, which is to sit on the park benches, and British people drink tea, so I thought of the teapot ... I'm trying to connect, because bees connect world-wide.

"I regard the bees not as individuals but as a thought process, almost a computer software program," she continued. "And working with them fits in with the chances I take and the accidents I look for in my work. They are a force I totally respect. I love their warmth and tenacity, and the fact that they have such an old form of construction - and not being a perfect builder myself I find their construction totally perfect."

In fact, although Aganetha usually takes the coated object out of the hive and works on it further, adding wax or taking some away, there are times when she finds the bees' ideas better than her own, and changes nothing.

She hopes to continue working with bees, and is already envisaging new ways of doing so. "I would like to work long-distance, using the same equipment that surgeons use to guide operations in remote areas. From Canada I could construct things in a hive in another country using this new computer-imaging technique."

Natalie Hodgson, too, is keen on bees. Her bees inhabit no ordinary hive, but a custom-made bee village made up of 20 brightly painted miniature shops and houses including "The Beehive Inn" and "St Ambrose's Church". As well as her apiary in Shropshire, Mrs Hodgson runs a pick-your-own lavender farm - a combination that makes for a distinctly different day out.

In particular, a bee viewing tunnel has proved a magnet for children. "I got the idea in Poland," said Mrs Hodgson. "The Poles are keen beekeepers and at the bee museum I saw a wooden hive made in the form of a life-size peasant woman in national dress. To get at the bees you lifted her skirt up at the back. That, I thought, was a bit rude for Shropshire, but it did inspire me ..."

A bee village may be fine, but what about a bee boat? Bruno Poissonnier and his wife and two children live on their barge in the South of France together with all their bees, plus the equipment for extracting the honey. They are even preparing a cabin for bee-loving B&B guests.

Bruno, who has a degree in philosophy, started keeping bees 15 years ago and now sells honey both wholesale and retail. The boat navigates the Canal des Deux Mers, which runs between Bordeaux and Beziers, giving Bruno's bees the pick of some of the loveliest countryside in France. Not only can Bruno move the boat to wherever the best honey-producing crops are to be found, but his bees receive remuneration (at about pounds 1,000 a go) for pollinating canalside fields.

Meanwhile, over in the States, bee eccentricity has taken on a new dimension with bee-bearding. The idea is to encourage bees to congregate around your face and neck in the form of a living "beard". This is achieved by taking the queen and either strapping her in a container to your neck or placing her gently in your mouth ... The bees, attracted by the queen's pheromones, will then swarm around her, creating the beard effect. The swarming bees are full of honey so the risk is not as great as it looks, enabling the doyen of this unlikely sport, Dr Norman Gary, a beekeeper who supplies colonies to American film and television companies, to demonstrate this arcane art naked while playing the clarinet.

Aganetha Dyck's Yorkshire Bee Project is on view at the Camellia House, The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Hall, West Bretton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire (01924 830302) until 26 October.

Natalie Hodgson's bee village and lavender farm is at Astley Abbots, Bridgnorth, Shropshire (01746 763122)

For enquiries about B&B accommodation aboard Bruno Poissonnier's Bateau Abielle, write to the Marie de Vianne, 47230 Vianne, France, asking them to forward your letter.