I wanted to illustrate how diverse and endangered our bee population is and how pivotal they all are to our ecosystem
A newly-restored, 14th-century gallery, perched high on a plateau above the mournful Somerset levels, has been swarmed by bees - fifty of them to be precise.
Like drones returning home, they have followed their Queen, the fibre artist and sculpturist Lydia Needle who is the driving force behind an exhibition of work called Fifty bees: the interconnectedness of all things.
For almost a year, Lydia has delicately crafted 50 almost life-size British bee pieces made with dyed wool, embroidery and fine gold gilding. She explains: "I then invited another fifty artists, makers, writers and musicians to produce one piece in response to the habitat, linked wildlife, ecology, flight or sound of one of those bees."
The results, on show until 22nd July, in the beautiful light-filled space of the ACE Arts Gallery in the medieval market town of Somerton are captivating. There are 262 bee species in Britain, which include 24 types of bumblebee, 225 sorts of solitary bee, but just the one honeybee. Many are in decline. Needle explains, "I wanted to illustrate how diverse and endangered our bee population is and how pivotal they all are to our ecosystem.
For me, it wasn't just about having a forum and excuse to make new work. The idea was to ensure that gallery visitors not only saw amazing pieces, but that they were also inspired and enthused to make small changes in their gardens or to spread the word about the plight of our pollinators. For that to happen, we needed artworks that speak to everyone."
Installation pieces such as Joy Merron's Flight path of the Shrill carder bee imaginatively fulfill that brief. Merron uses embroidery floss and Japanese net to trace the zig-zagging flight of one of the UK's rarest bumblebees and produce an ingenious 3D colour map. The artist says: "The stitches follow a series of Zs that echoes the bees' high-pitched buzz. As they don't travel far, relying on nearby flower-rich meadows and grasslands, the stitching is dense. Aiming to encompass flight and foraging patterns, I have used seven colours of thread to represent seven areas of the UK where this increasingly rare bee is still found."
Andrena ferox, the Oak Mining Bee, naturally resonated with graphite artist Paul Newman whose intensely detailed pencil studies feature many trees. In Newman's immersive depiction Queen of the Woods, the artist was beguiled by the oak's form and the way the main trunk had split and twisted over time. He says: "This tree is located on the RSPB reserve at Ynys-Hir in Wales. I sat under it for an hour while a raven moved about above me, calling across the salt marsh, which lay below. I kept thinking about scale while working on this piece - the tiny bee moving about the foliage, interconnected and a necessary part of the oak's life."
The symbiotic relationship between two types of bee is highlighted in Rowena Payne's exuberant summer-coloured Bee's eye view. Payne reveals the sad story behind her joyous watercolour: "My response piece shows ‘my bee', the Large Scabious Bee, Andrena hattorfiana, prospecting for nectar in a bed of field scabious. It depends upon the nectar of this wildflower but, sadly, this flower is in decline. This means the Cuckoo Bee that is dependent upon the Scabious Bee is also declining. They are both classed as rare/vulnerable and on the ‘at risk register'."
The thoughtful beauty of the works is a much-appreciated balance to the worrying message behind many of the pieces and, where possible, there are positive notes too. For example, the Tormentil Mining Bee is a subject chosen by Deborah Westmancoat. Her atmospheric piece Ocellus links the close-to-collapse species and its shrinking listed habitat. Westmancoat has created a fascinating textured piece with handmade inks and rainwater collected from a location on Dartmoor in Devon where a sighting of the elusive bee was recently recorded.
Louisa Crispin's Study of a Bumblebee 013 records the tragic tale of the Short-haired Bumblebee. Once widespread across the south of England, it was declared extinct in the UK in 2000. Crispin exhibits a daintily ethereal depiction of the bee in the equally otherworldly landscape of Dungeness, Kent, where a project is underway to re-introduce a swarm.
Carefully foraged plants that produce rich, natural dyes for hand-spun yarn form the basis of an installation by Helen Hickman. And for additional impact, it is suspended inside a beekeeper's honey-stained brood frame. It was inspired by the landscape she shares with the brilliantly alliterative Bilberry Bumble Bee. "Surrounded by species-rich heath and peat bogs in the Welsh hills," Hickman says, "the Bilberry is drawn to plants such as gorse, blackberry and of course, bilberries, which line the banks here."
While I was in Somerton the interconnectedness of the new ACE Arts gallery and Needle's campaigning exhibition was clearly having the same effect on a broader level, drawing in people like bees to a honeypot.
ACEarts gallery: www.acearts.co.uk
Lydia Needle: lydianeedle.com
Gary Cook is a conservation artist and the Ecologist's Arts Editor
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Society of Graphic Fine Art: sgfa.org.uk/members/gary-cook/
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