The Hive at Kew

JB Intern Luke Maxfield reviews Wolfgang Buttress' installation The Hive at Kew.

It didn’t exactly look like a beehive at first glance, but the 17m high aluminium lattice definitely stood out against the trees at Kew Gardens. The Hive is a sculpture by British artist Wolfgang Buttress, designed to provide a multisensory insight into the lives of bees. Buttress was inspired by the work of Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University, known for his research into bee communication

The Hive at Kew Gardens by Wolfgang Buttress

The structure consists of 170,000 pieces of aluminium connected to form a hexagonal lattice with a hollow centre, allowing you to walk right in. Here you are greeted by mysterious orchestral hums and hundreds of twinkling LED lights, which respond in real time to a living beehive by sensors that measure the vibrations inside. When the bees are more active, the lights flash faster and the music begins to build in volume and complexity, creating a sort-of hypnotic atmosphere. Beneath The Hive you can experience the different forms of bee communication. Biting a stick connected to a vibrating plate transmits these vibrations through the skull, allowing them to become audible.

Importantly, The Hive also provides a focal point for conversation about the environmental issues associated with bees. Bees pollinate over two thirds of the food we eat, and their decline poses potential threats to global food security. 

Staff at The Hive direct visitor’s attention to the flowery meadow surrounding The Hive, containing 34 species of native flowers. “The UK has lost 97% of its wild flower meadows since the 1930’s,” explained Chris, a Kew expert. He goes on to tell a group of visitors that this habitat loss, combined with climate change and pesticide use in gardens and agriculture is having detrimental effects on bee populations, he then went on to tell us what we can do to help. 

Such a lecture could probably send the average person to sleep, but Chris assured me that “people have left feeling really energised”. It’s clear that the artistic quality of The Hive makes a big difference in engaging its visitors. “I came because it looked like such a cool structure,” Katy, a visitor, told me, “but it was really interesting to hear about the role bees have in the world. The staff really know their stuff!”

Visitors to The Hive are encouraged to feel “enveloped, wrapped-up and involved in the experience,” as opposed to “external observers,” Buttress tells the Guardian. There is certainly a lesson to be learned here. When it comes to environmental issues such as climate change, too often we feel that it’s not affecting us personally, at least not right now. We feel like “external observers,” watching it happen elsewhere in the world. This has to change if we are to effectively engage others on these issues. 

Art has a huge role to play in helping us understand our relationship with the environment. The Hive is a marvellous example; it has grabbed people’s attention regardless of their previous knowledge and given them not only an intimate view of the lives of bees, but also an insight into the challenges they face. More of these projects are needed to bring together artists, scientists and the public to jointly explore our relationship with the natural world and how our actions can affect it. 

Sustaining Creativity