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Honeybees collaborate with Kalamazoo artist on ArtPrize exhibit

The ArtPrizecompetition opens tomorrow in Grand Rapids. One of the exhibits will have live animals roaming all over the artwork.

Inter-species collaboration

There are a bunch of bees on West Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. People slow down to stare at the guy opening up the beehive. His name is Ladislav Hanka.

Hanka’s been an artist for several decades. He became a beekeeper four years ago when a friend put a box of bees on his kitchen table.

“The bees just awakened in me the need to be more involved. I don’t make my living from beekeeping and I don’t have to, thank goodness, because it looks like beekeeping is in such an eclipse now that there’s a question of whether there will be any pollinators left in the next few years for the crops,” he says.

He brought the bees to install in his exhibit in the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.  The museum’s theme for ArtPrize is collaboration.  Ladislav Hanka is crossing the species barrier with that theme.

Imagine a trophy case that runs the length of a wall. Inside are three rows of Hanka’s etchings.

They’re black and white and sepia colored prints of toads, and giant trees and insects and birds.  Living, endangered, dying.

“Here, in front of us, is a picture of some spawned salmon.”

Hanka puts his artwork into his beehives, and the bees make honeycomb on top of the art. He says it changes colors depending on the kind of flowers the bees visit. This time of year, it’s a brilliant yellow wax from goldenrod.

An evolving exhibit

Hanka’s artwork is under lock and key because 5,000 bees will be in there with it.

"You'll see bees walking around on the artwork, maybe adding a little wax there, pulling a little honey out there. It's all a grand experiment. I don't really know for sure how well this will work."

“They will be flying around, you’ll see bees walking around on the artwork, maybe adding a little wax there, pulling a little honey out there. It’s all a grand experiment. I don’t really know for sure how well this will work,” he says.

The cabinet is specially designed to keep the bees inside. There are screens under the lights to keep bees out of the ventilation system. And the museum’s directors took out extra insurance, just in case.

“We’ve never done anything like this, " says Miranda Krajniak, the museum’s executive director. “The combination of contemporary art and bees together - something you’d usually think of as nature center-oriented – is really, really interesting. And I think every time you come to see the exhibition, it’ll be slightly different because the bees are eating the artwork.”

The bees will sometimes chew the edges of the prints. It gives them an antique look.

Ladislav Hanka says he hopes to see a bunch of greasy little handprints at the bottom edge of the glass. He says he wants you to step up close, watch the bees, and not be able to forget about them.

"And you go home, you think about it, 'that guy with the bees, that was really something, and I want to do something for the bees.'"

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.