Just Like Honey
Words Julia Jarvis
Photographs Katya de Grunwald
Designer and artist Amy Pliszka stitches her own handmade pleated hives for our growing population of urban honeybees.It’s all about the mystery and wonder, she explains…
There are few things, like nature, that retain their ability to inspire awe and wonder in our urban, up-to-the-minute, networked lives. It could be the inherent beauty in the design of the natural world; the way its life and death cycle is played out in such pragmatic terms. Take the bee, for example, who plays a tiny but hugely consequential role in our food chain: if not for bees, one third of the food we eat would not be available.
Amy Pliszka has, for the past three years, immersed herself in the world of honey bees. Her project, Bees Beside Us, first came about as a response to a brief for her Textiles Futures Masters programme at Central Saint Martins in 2011. Her aim was ‘to forge a new relationship with bees in the urban context and to communicate an appreciation for all they do for us’. In short: she makes artificial beehives.
Amy’s guiding principles for her design were biomimicry and good old-fashioned research. She studied the theory and biology of bees and learned the practical side of beekeeping under urban beekeeper Steve Benbow, who manages the beehives on the rooftops of the Tate buildings, Fortnum & Mason and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
‘What’s equally important is the communication to people that don’t know what’s happening to honey bees, but also to create something that’s really luxurious and wonderful for them; that’s all about their needs,’ Pliszka says. ‘It’s a statement – they do so much more than produce honey for us; they provide us with life. We need to respect them for that alone and I think that was what my project was really about.’
Historically, the countryside and its hedgerows have provided a diverse diet for bees. However, with the rural landscape now irrevocably changed by intensive farming practices, Pliszka was looking to provide an environment where bees could access a varied diet while staying out of harm’s way from the pesticides that intercept the worker bees’ navigation system, killing them outright, as they forage for pollen and nectar. As Pliszka explains, ‘It became apparent that this idea of the move from rural to urban is key. The urban environment almost provided a conservation space for them because it gave them a varied diet of the pollen which is their protein in all of our parks and gardens.’
Biomimicry is a discipline that studies nature’s design and exploits their processes to solve human problems. Pliszka’s work applies the discipline to serve both us and – more importantly – its source user, the bee.
Each of her hives has a hand-turned, wooden roof that acts as its foundation and supports the honeycomb (which can weigh up to 10 kilos). Attached to this is a bespoke, pleated, hand-stitched textile. The pleated element can be clipped on and off , so the bee colony can be monitored for disease and infestation. The pleats allow the hive to expand and contract as the bee population rises and falls during the year. (At its peak in the summer the colony could be as many as 50,000-strong; dropping off drastically as male drones die after mating with the queen and female worker bees are ejected from the hive for winter.) Finally, there is an external protective weatherproof layer.
‘bees do much more than produce honey for us – they provide us with life. We need to respect them for that alone’
‘I’m not looking at [the traditional] box shape with a moveable frame,’ says Pliszka; ‘that’s for controlling the colony. It’s about creating the right shell for the honey bees to make a “brace comb” – which is the curved, natural wild comb. So it’s about studying the bees and how they live in the wild – that was why I started pleating.’
Pliszka took on an internship at Ciment Pleaters in Potters Bar – one of the few bespoke pleaters left in the UK – during which she learnt the craft of pleating. Together they developed a pleat specially for the beehives.
Struck by the fact that an average honey bee will make less than a quarter of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, it made sense to Pliszka that the whole project should be a slow, intentional act that contrasted with the fast pace of mass consumerism. Everything in the process is carefully considered before being made by hand.
To make her pleats, ‘you need a really beautiful, thick, hard, brown paper and then you draw out your design and you have to score it with a Stanley knife, and fold it down; all by hand,’ Pliszka explains. Each pleat makes up a quarter of the beehive, which is aligned to the other pleats and connected by a series of invisible seams.
‘After the pleating process, I then have to stitch everything together. To create that shape, you have to do lots of tight stitching near the entrance, then I use boning and I stitch it within the pleats to make it sturdy. It’s a lot of stitching and your fingers get quite sore, especially with leather.’ The entire process can take months to complete.
The hive design lends itself to other materials too. Amy is in production of a number of winter hives for Chelsea Physic Garden that will be made entirely from ceramic. There’s still more research to do too, as she is keen to ensure that the hives can be biodegradable, in a natural material; as well as weatherproof and breathable.
‘There are so many inspiring things about bees,’ she enthuses. ‘They’re like little tiny magical creatures; they are still very mysterious. I think that’s what we should promote actually: their mystery and wonder. As humans we have the desire to know everything and control everything and the power of mystery is so much more.’
As Dostoevsky wrote in the The Idiot, ‘Beauty will save the world’; perhaps with design like this, it just might.