Urban bee activism


Living 3D printers. Bees at work in the Brussels Urban Bee Lab

A third of the food we eat depends on pollinators -especially bees- for a successful harvest. Which means that the decline of bees and other pollinating insects observed in most industrialized countries is threatening to compromise biodiversity and agricultural yields.

Media artist and beekeeper Annemarie Maes is the founding director of the Brussels Urban Bee Lab and one of the co-founders of the artist collective OKNO. She has been monitoring and working with urban bee colonies since 2009, not only to develop novel art works but also to better understand the connections between city honeybees and urban ecosystems, to raise awareness among citizens about the plight of the pollinating bees and to call for ecological activism.

Maes was in Riga last week to talk about her work at the Renewable Futures conference which was part of the RIXC’s new art and science festival.


The Urban Artfarm consists of an edible forest garden, an apiary and a vegetable garden run by a local community. The project is self sufficient in terms of rainwater and solar energy for powering the sensors. Photo: Annemie Maes

Her bees can be found on the Urban Farm that she built on the rooftop of a parking lot in the historical center of Brussels.

The farm functions as an open-air laboratory where artists and urban gardeners experiment with strategies for sustainable living in the city and investigates questions such as: How does a rooftop ecosystem deal with energy, water, soil and green technology? How do plants and city honeybees interact with this artificial ecosystem and more generally with the urban environment?

One of Maes’ bee projects is The Sound Beehive experiment which literally listens to the sound made by the bees in order to monitor the development of the beehives and examine their relationships with their environment.

As bio indicators, honeybees provide us with a constant stream of information on the environment (urban, countryside) on which they forage (activity, pollen, nectar). Diseases like colony collapse disorder and environmental problems like the use of pesticides could be analysed in a different way by monitoring and analysing the daily activity (audio, video) of several bee colonies over multiple years.

Two of her beehives are equipped with non-intrusive, off the shelf-technology (microphones, temperature and humidity sensors, IR cameras, etc.) that monitors bee interactions with their immediate environment as well as the activity inside the beehives. The huge amount of data is streamed online, collected and them analyzed in collaboration with scientists from the Brussels Free University who use pattern recognition programs in order to identify relationships between the biotope and the behaviors and health of the colony.


The Sound Beehive, detail. Photo via ALOTOF


Streaming set up of the sound beehives, with the Raspberry camera and computer. Photo via ALOTOF


A piezo microphone mounted on a frame. The bees build wax around it. Photo via ALOTOF

Everything is set up from an artistic point of view which means, as Maes explained with a smile, ‘very little money, lots of DIY and affordable technology (arduino, Rapsberry Pi, etc) and lots of learning through trials and errors.’

The monitoring doesn’t stop there. Maes and her team also collect the pollen that the bees bring back, they magnify the images of the pollen, identify from which plants they come and build up a database which enables them to determine the geographical locations of the plants the bees visited and to draw ‘green corridors’ through the city, helping the insects to expand their foraging fields.


The pollen the bees bring back from their foraging flights are analyzed with the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Above a Cucurbita pepa pollen grain (zucchini) magnified 1150x. Photo: Annemie Maes

Another of Maes’ experimental bee projects is The Transparent Beehive, a living sculpture built like a book. The design was inspired by Swiss entomologist Francis Huber‘s Leaf Hive (1789) which featured a fully movable frame hive that enabled the scientist to study the evolution of a bee colony. Each page consists of a wooden frame where bees can build honeycomb structures.

Just like the Sound Beehive, the Transparent Beehive is equipped with microphones, sensors cameras that monitor the colony’s buzz, the growth of the wax structures, the activity of bees as well as various microclimate data. The sensors also make it possible to monitor the beehive from a distance and unobtrusively. In consequence, the hives do not need to be opened and the bees activity remains undisturbed.


Transparent Beehive (the laboratory), 2012


Transformative Ecologies at Mons-2015: audio installations with beehive recordings. Photo Annemie Maes

Much of AnneMarie Maes’ work is presented and explained in detail in the book Ignorance, A Laboratory On The Open Fields.


Photos of the book by MER. Paper Kunsthalle

The aim of the European project ALOTOF A Laboratory on the Open Field was to make ecological media art in a natural environment instead of the more traditional (but artificial) setting of a gallery or museum space. The publication documents the work of artists who made artworks that range from site specific sound installations to wooden bike mobiles, ephemeral outdoor restaurants, machines that would make hunted animals run away and nomadic workshop.