A summer arts project in York is going mad about bees. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

BEES are amazing: and not just because they produce honey (or some of them do).

The social structure of honey bees in particular is remarkable. A colony of up to 50,000 bees operates almost like a single creature. There's a queen, who alone can produce eggs; a few hundred male drones (whose sole job in life is to fertilise the queen); and tens of thousands of workers.

These are female bees who will never reproduce, but who are the colony's labour force. They spend their short lives building and defending their nests, gathering nectar, and looking after young bees. Their exact role in the strict hierarchy of the colony depends on their age: but they cooperate seamlessly with other workers by means of chemical pheromones and communicative 'dances' to ensure the colony runs like clockwork.

And they work hard. A single worker honey bee can toil all its life to produce enough honey to fill only a 12th of a teaspoon. The Wildlife Trusts - the umbrella group for regional wildlife groups such as the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust - estimates that a colony of honey bees will fly a combined distance of about 55,000 miles and collect nectar from two million flowers just to make a single pound of honey. Think of that next time you buy a jar from your local supermarket...

York Press:

Ordered society: honey bees

It isn't only honey bees which are extraordinary, however. Many species of bumblebee (there are 24 different types in the UK) also lives in colonies, though usually their colonies are only a few hundred strong. Like honeybees, bumblebees visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar. But they can reach pollen other bees can't get to. They do something called 'buzz pollinating' - where they grab a flower and buzz to release the pollen trapped inside. They have a special 'honey stomach' to carry nectar which, when full, makes up 90 per cent of the bee's weight. And they leave behind them smelly footprints, so that bees who come after them know who was there before...

And then there are the so-called solitary bees - about 225 different species of them in the UK alone, including leafcutter bees that carve out nest material from plants, mining bees that dig burrows, and mason bees that use mud to build nest compartments.

As their names suggest, they tend to live alone or in very small groups, the Wildlife Trusts says. But like honey bees and bumblebees, they also visit flowers to collect nectar.

And it is that nectar-collecting behaviour that is really the most extraordinary thing of all about bees. Because as they flit from flower to flower collecting nectar, they carry with them on their legs and fur tiny grains of pollen.

York Press:

A bees collecting nectar

Pollen is produced by the male part of the flower (the stamen). And for a flower to produce seeds or fruit (and so a new generation of plants) that pollen needs to be carried to the female part (the stigma) of a different flower of the same species.

Bees happily (if unknowingly) do this for plants as they fly around gathering pollen. They’re pollinators, in other words: and without them the world would be very different.

The Wildlife Trusts says that there are about 100 species of vital food plants that feed 90 per cent of the world’s human population. And 70 of these food plants are pollinated by bees. They include many commons fruits such as apples and tomatoes, and many root crops such as carrots and squash. Diane Roberts of the British Beekeepers Association reckons that in the UK alone bees (of all species) contribute something like £300 million to the economy each year, thanks to their pollinating behaviour. That really is remarkable.

Here in York, a great new summer arts project – PolliNation – is taking a very close-up look at bees and their pollinating behaviour.

Scores of local people have been attending a series of workshops led by Claire Douglas, the curriculum manager of York Learning’s visual arts programme. They’re given photographs of pollen grains as seen through a microscope, water paint pencils, and hexagonal shapes cut from MDF. And then they’re painting the textures and colours of pollen grains onto the hexagons.

York Press:

Claire Douglas with some of the piollen hexagons already painted

Over the course of ten or more workshops, several hundred of these hexagons will be produced. And the idea is that, towards the end of October, Claire will assemble them into a giant ‘honeycomb’ mosaic that will cover the walls of the café in the Explore York central library.

The aim is to get those taking part thinking about bees and their importance to our daily lives. But it is also just to appreciate how amazing these little creature are, Claire says.

“You only have to look at a beehive and it completely blows your mind,” she says.

Those attending a PolliNation workshop at Explore last week were certainly as busy as bees. But unlike bees, each hexagon they were painting had the absolute stamp of individuality.

Grandmother Pauline Turner is a regular at Claire's Wednesday painting and drawing classes for adult learners – and jumped at the chance of getting involved in this project.

York Press:

Pauline Turner with hexagons

“It is very satisfying, very relaxing,” she said, putting the finishing touches to a hexagon. “Even though we’re drawing the same pollen grains, every piece we produce is different. We’re all giving our own interpretation.”

PoliNation is part of a larger project – Telling the Bees – which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and run by the universities of York, Sheffield and Lancaster working with York Explore.

Telling the Bees is all about increasing awareness of the importance of bees through a series of art, design and drama projects, says Dr Debbie Maxwell of the Department of Theatre Film and Television at the University of York.

It is vital that we do start thinking about them, she says – because bee populations everywhere are under threat, from the use of pesticides, from modern farming techniques which damage their habitats, from climate change, and from invasive species such as the Asian hornet (see panel).

We should be worried about that, she says – and not just because of honey. “We should be worried about the impact on food production. About one third of all the mouthfuls that we eat are foods that were grown with the help of pollinators, mainly bees.”

Now that’s a sobering thought. If PolliNation and Telling the Bees can begin to remind us how important these extraordinary insects are, they’re already doing their job…

A series of PolliNation art workshops are being held at York Explore up until October. They include:

  • Monday August 21, 10am-1pm
  • Monday August 21, 1.30-4pm (a special parent & child workshop)
  • Saturday September 30, 9.30am-1pm
  • Saturday September 30, 1pm-3.30pm
  • Saturday October 14, 9.30am-1pm
  • Saturday October 14, 1pm-3.30pm

You must book to take part in a workshop. Do this at www.yortime.org.uk or by calling 01904 552806


Wild bee populations across the UK and around the world are at risk because of a combination of modern farming practices, the use of insecticides, climate change, pests such as the varroa mite and invasive species such as the Asian hornet.

In some parts of China, according to The Wildlife Trusts, bee numbers have dropped so low that farmers are having to fertilise their apple and pear trees by hand, using paintbrushes and pots of pollen.

In the UK, wild populations of honey bees have almost ceased to exist, says Diane Roberts of the British Beekeepers’ Association. Domesticated hive colonies of honey bees are still doing OK, because beekeepers have been able to divide their colonies up – removing the queen and some of her drones and workers to form a new colony, while the remaining drones and workers in the original colony rear a new queen.

But wild populations of bumblebees and solitary bees have been hit badly, she says.

One of the big problems has been the loss of hay meadows and wildflower meadows, which are wild bees' natural habitats. These have been converted to farmland. “But we forgot that we need the pollinators to grow crops,” she says.

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Predator: the Asian hornet (Photo: British Pest Control Association)

The latest invasive species to have made the headlines, meanwhile, is the Asian hornet. These are now widespread in central and southern France, and were first spotted in the UK at Tetbury in Gloucestershire last year. There have since been reports of them in Scotland and Somerset.

They are vicious predators which kill and eat bees – and without action to stop them, could spread across the UK within 20 years, a recent study by the University of Warwick warned.

The large, yellow-legged hornets hover underneath hives, and seize and eat worker bees as they come out, says Diane Roberts. They will keep going until every worker in a colony is dead – and then go in and eat the honey for good measure.

Experts are urging beekeepers to be on the lookout for telltale signs of Asian hornets, and to contact the Non Native Species Secretariat immediately at alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk if they find them. A confirmed hornet sighting will trigger an eradication plan by the National Bee Unit, based near York.