Hives as Art

Sharpening the keeper’s tongue

North Americans are missing a great canvas. The beehive. Solid, often white and publicly visible, it should be used by artists more often. I’ve been lucky enough to work hives in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and South America. Surprisingly, the most decorated colonies are in one of the most traditional cultures. Slovenia – a tiny country wedged between Italy, Austria, and Croatia – is known for its somber, hard-working folks. Slovenians honour seriousness. They tend towards understatement and practical good sense in their homes, architecture, and businesses. One might think them dour but they sure have some funky beehives. Like the one to your left. Hideous, isn’t it? It shows a woman – the village gossip – with her tongue against the sharpening stone, held in place by devils. The hive panel, called a panjske končnice, is nailed to the front of the hive, near the hive entrance. It helps the bees find their home. Slovenian hives are sometimes stacked atop each other, sometimes squeezed onto semi-permanent trailers, sometimes lined up tightly on the porch near the kitchen door. Without colourful markers, bees could easily flounder. The entrance panels serve a dual purpose – they keep both bees and souls from being lost. Traditional thought remains strong in Slovenia. These message boards are still pretty common, as are their moral messages.

Creative queen nucs

In Chile, my friend Francisco Rey stocks queen-mating nucs like the ones in the next picture. He told me that he turns his helpers loose with paints and brushes, telling them, “Divertirse!” And they do have fun. The only instruction is to be creative. The Chilean paint job serves the same function as the Slovenian entrance board – to help bees find their way home. This, as you likely know, is particularly important when young queens are on their nuptial flights. It would be too easy to end up in the wrong nuc if the boxes looked like houses in Smallville, Indiana. And residents would be like so many party girls coming home late on a weekend night, not quite sure where they belong. (For that, the Slovenians also have an appropriate hive panel.)

The artistic hive

Meanwhile, in North America, we aren’t much into hive art. I think that’s a legacy of our puritanic heritage. Functional and practical and white are preferred. I am just as guilty as most beekeepers here, as you can see in the picture below, from an incredibly dull bee yard we have in Vulcan County, Alberta, Canada. The bees might make more honey if their boxes had eccentric colours and if the hives were aligned less straightly. But don’t they look great?

Our colourless beeyard

Exciting beehives are rare on this continent. It is so uncommon, in fact, that painted hives make the news. At least, beekeeping news. American Bee Journal featured artist Jill Sanders‘ great hive art on their June, 2014, magazine cover. And out at UCLA Davis, Diane Ullman’s half-acre bee garden, the Haagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, has a whole bunch of interestingly painted beehives. In this case, too, the painted bee boxes are cool enough to be written about, as you will see if you follow this link. I like the colourful hives, they certainly help bees find their homes, but we North Americans mostly employ drab monotonous unaesthetic hives, rarely straying from “white” as a fashion statement.


About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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