detained trained deployed

Bees-trained-detained-deployed Last week a good friend of mine sent me an article on bees she found while doing some research of her own. The article, in The Funambulist Papers 60, was written by Renisa Mawani. It’s called “Bee Workers and the Expanding Edges of Capitalism” (posted December 28, 2014 by Leopold Lambert). The writer explores our often troubled interactions with honeybees, expands our understanding of  “bee workers,” and offers a Marxist reading of non-human labor and our exploitation of honeybees.

I found the article mesmerizing! Bees used for military purposes? What next? Well, quickly doing a google search, I realized that not only are bees being used for bomb-sniffing, but also drug-busting and cancer-detecting. Bees have a highly acute sense of smell (which they need for foraging), and apparently they can be trained ‘easily’ to sniff out a variety of chemical substances.

My ignorance is legion!

I have some familiarity with issues that plague honeybees–from diseases and mites, pesticides and chemicals, malnutrition and loss of forage; commercial pollination practices, CCD. I know we have harvested the labours of the honeybee since pre-historic times, that throughout our long relationship with them, we have viewed the honeybee as sacred and at the same time, expendable. We use the products of bee labor– honey and wax and propolis and pollen and the venom of bees, both for our own pleasure and for our health. We have exploited the honeybee and we continue to exploit this tiny insect without qualms, apparently. The image above is taken from an online article of the MIT Review, “Using Bees to Detect Bombs. Honeybees might one day join the front line of national security.” ((Dec7, 2006) Here’s an excerpt:

Timothy Haarmann, principal investigator of the Los Alamos project (officially called the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project), says he and his colleagues trained bees to extend their proboscises–tubular organs used to suck the nectar from flowers–in the presence of explosives. When the proboscis is extended, the bee appears to be sticking out its tongue.

Training 50 bees requires only two or three hours using this traditional approach, which takes advantage of an insect’s attraction to sugar water. “If you hold up sugar water [to bees], they stick out their proboscis,” Haarmann says.

By combining a target substance with sugar water and then presenting the compound to the bee, the researchers manipulate the insects into recognizing a distinct smell. By the end of the session, successfully trained bees extend their proboscises toward explosives.

In Haarmann’s system the bees are contained in tubes so that their proboscises can be easily monitored. Unfortunately, a contained bee only lasts about two days. “We find that after about 48 hours you start to get a high mortality rate,” Haarmann says. Being confined is “hard on them.”

Really! I wonder what do 2 days of imprisoned confinement out of the 60 or so days of a honeybee’s life correspond to in human terms? 

where are we headed?


Recently I came upon this cartoon in the Globe & Mail; I laughed at the cleverness of the illustration but at the same time I was struck by its sad truth. The Globe has had a rush of articles this summer on the neonicotinoid pesticide debate and its effects of bees. (I found 7 articles to date, but there might be more; and I have not checked other papers).  Some of the articles came from the Business section of the newpaper, presumably because pesticide restrictions would hurt the profits of the big pharmaceutical companies that produce the chemicals. The companies deflect the argument by claiming that restricting the use of “neonics” (short form of the neonicotinoids) would endanger food production. Big agricultural growers are also claiming that they need the pesticides in order to maintain food production, and they further claim that if they didn’t have neonics, they would have to return to the use of the older and more toxic organo-phosphate pesticides. What a abysmal impasse for the environment.

The flurry of arguments and counter-arguments resulted from the request from concerned Ontario environmentalists, scientists and bee-keepers for a moratorium on the use of neonics. These debates are predominently about honeybees, but if managed honey-bees are in danger, then native bees suffer too. Pesticides are not choosy about their victims, sadly.

Where are we going?


I haven’t been consistent in posting my progress on the large bee project, “not by chance alone.”  This is a new section that I have been working on recently. It incorporates one of the large “Flora/Melissa” images.





And some close-ups of the smaller figures.  Final image, the paint-covered stamps piled up and ready for washing.




opening night

IMG_4268 copy

What a great evening it was! My thanks are due to the Roundhouse Community Center and especially to the  Arts Progammer and Curator, (and dear friend, gifted artist and educator) Cyndy Chwelos for her dedication and support of the arts, and her willingness to explore varied artistic practices.  I’m so glad that Cyndy included me in this exhibition! Thank you Cyndy for this opportunity. It takes a great deal of hard work and time to put together an interesting and engaging exhibition, especially one that includes so many artists and different artistic forms. From the initial stages of coming up with ideas for an exhibition, to seeking out artists, to making numerous studio visits, to writing plans, contracts; organizing workshops, making bookings, arranging for advertising, sorting out technical issues involved with installation, preparing for the opening night, overseeing the exhibition during the time the gallery is open, dealing with problems and issues over and over again; then taking care of de-installation — the amount of work it takes is immense, the orchestration complex. And what I see (as a participating artist) and what visitors to the gallery and workshops see, are the finished products–the beautiful exhibits, the smoothly running workshops, the buzzing opening nights.  We see none of the hard work that has gone into preparing an exhibition like this. So Cyndy, a big, full “Brava!” to you. (If however, you were to ask Cyndy about this, she would say that this is her passion, her work, her practice now!)

I also wish to add that without my friend, (eminent artist and art educator), Elizabeth MacKenzie, I would have been too afraid to participate with my bee project. Elizabeth is very generous with her time and her thoughtful insights are much appreciated. Thank you Elizabeth!

I want to thank the 4 young performers from UBC and Cap College who took up my invitation to interpret a 17th century madrigal for this opening night. The piece was written by the polymath, Charles Butler.  Butler was one of the first persons to recognize that the Queen bee was in fact female–and not male (the accepted patriarchal notion of the day). Butler wrote a book on bees and beekeeping called the “The Feminine Monarchie,” and for the 1623 edition, he added this madrigal which he himself composed to the glory of the Queen bee.

upcoming exhibition

RH13_Cultivate_eflyerI have the privilege of being part of an upcoming exhibition on environmental art at the Roundhouse Community Center Gallery in Vancouver. My bees will be there! Well, not all 50,000, but the 17,000 (or so) that I’ve completed to date. I am very excited about the show, about having the opportunity to exhibit this work in progress and about sharing the space with so many wonderful artists and artistic practices.  I’ll be spending these final 2 weeks before the installation joining the image sections together and working out the logistics of display.

14, 440 or so

I’ve created a virtual composite of the work I’ve done so far. Over 14,000 bees here out of the estimated 50,000 that will make up the complete colony. I”m just under a third of the way through the project.  My studio space is not large enough to put the entire piece together, even in these early stages ( it’s 18′ x 12′ in size and growing), so this image is very cut-and-paste looking, although it still does not show the individual sheets of silk tissue (18″ x 24″) on which the bees are printed.  All the sheets will be dipped in melted bees wax and then joined together to create the final work.


in free fall 2

Last week in the Vancouver Sun paper, I read an article on the decline of swallows in the Metro Vancouver area. (Tuesday, August 6, 2013). Apparently, swallows have been decreasing in numbers for decades, both regionally and nationally. The article cited several causes for the distressing situation, including the reduction in the numbers of insects through the widespread use of insecticides, the increase in pollution in urban areas, loss of traditional nesting sites and of course, climate change. Reduced access to food. No where to nest. Toxic chemicals. That’s quite a line-up of stressors.


The statistics are dismal—barn swallows, the most common species in Metro Vancouver, have declined by 70%, cliff swallows and purple martins by more than 50%:

“And there is little hope for recovery in the absence of decisive action,” said Derek Matthews, chair of the Vancouver Avian Research Centre.

I’m noting this article, not only for the fact that I’m interested in the birds that form part of the ecological environment of my community, but also because my project on bees includes the animals, insects and other predators that count bees as part of their food sources. The interconnection between various creatures is complex, and singling out just one from the many, would not address the reality of existence for those creatures.  When I read this article on swallows, I realized that there before me, lay the evidence, a reciprocal, interdependent line of connection between the bees and their environment. Alas, interdependency means either life for all, or death for all.

repetition, variation, process

Working with stamps and linocuts is very addictive – repetition, the basis of the process, allows for large areas to be produced within a relatively (that’s relatively) short space of time (compared to hand drawing, of course). I’m up to 9,000 bees to date and counting!

At the same time, I can cut new stamps as the muse strikes me, thus maintaining some of the individuality inherent in hand drawing. The repetition involved in creating the patterns contributes to the unity of the total piece, but further, each act of stamping or printing produces a unique imprint – the pressure applied to the paper, the amount of ink on the stamp and even accidental movements and slips of the hand create a variation in each print.  From clear impressions to strange blobs, I never quite know what I’m going to get!