Meet the Yorkshire artist on a mission to save Britain’s bees

  • Can art save the humble British bee? Painter Laney Birkhead tells Sharon Dale why she’s on a mission to do just that.

We British are known for our obsession with pets, property, tea and the weather… and now we can add bees to that list. Swarms of men, women and children in Yorkshire have rallied to learn about the plight of these champion pollinators after painter and printmaker Laney Birkhead began what she thought would be a small art project. The buzz it created revealed a heartfelt love for bees.

Laney, a beekeeper, decided to take a short sabbatical from her landscape painting and printmaking to do a few workshops where people could print bees onto fabric using ink blocks that she had designed. While they printed, she could tell them of the importance of the insects and how to help them.

Children got a  a great buzz form the pintmaking and learned along the way.

Children got a a great buzz form the pintmaking and learned along the way.

“It started as a grain of an idea called ‘Swarm’ to print 50,000 bees, which is what you need to make up a hive and it’s also how many miles bees have to fly to make one jar of honey. The plan was to raise awareness but it has taken over my life. The response has been absolutely amazing.

“People just love bees and they really want to know what they can do to help them,” says Laney, who had to bring in “Swarm assistants”, including her husband, Tim, fellow artists, friends and students, to help her cope with the demand.

She has done more than 40 workshops in the last 10 months and more than 1,500 people have taken part. With fabric piling up in her front room in Harrogate, it was obvious she would have to do something big with it. She settled on stitching the calico hexagons together and draping it over a giant frame to create a giant walk-through honeycomb cell.

Finding “sewing bees” was no problem. The ever capable members of Forest Moor Women’s Institute marched in with their machines to get the job done. Tim helped designed the metal frame and St Robert’s Primary School, Harrogate, provided space to test it out.

The workshops were fun and educational

The workshops were fun and educational

The result is 150 square metres of beautiful 
bee-printed fabric fashioned into a hive that looks set to tour the country after its first exhibition at the Inspired By gallery at the North Yorks Moors National Park Centre in Danby and a second at Sunnybank Mills in Farsley. Alongside it will be a range of bee-inspired work created by artists and filmmakers.

Handwritten promises made by children who attended the workshops will also be on display. Many pledge to “plant more flowers” and leave proclamations saying “I love bees” in black felt-tip pen.

Laney hopes she has managed to pass on her enthusiasm for the creatures that are vitally important to our eco system but are under constant attack. Bees pollinate a third of our food crops.

“They are the canary in the mine. If they are in trouble, we are all in trouble,” she says.

Laney Birkhead in her studio.

Laney Birkhead in her studio.

Her fascination with bees began almost 10 years ago when she wanted a hobby that was completely different to her day-to-day work. She now has three hives in her garden.

“They are fascinating and highly intelligent creatures,” says Laney, who adds that the waggle dance is just one example of their ingenuity. “If you’re a forager bee your job is to find nectar then go back to the hive and tell the other workers where you found it. You do this by waggling and turning to tell the other bees how far away the source is and which direction to fly out of the hive. It’s amazing.”

The life of the average worker bee is short. Those raised in summer live six weeks, while winter bees can live for six months. That’s the best case scenario as the 21st century has brought an unprecedented onslaught of threats. There has been a dramatic loss of habitat and feeding ground due to fewer meadows and intensive farming. Invasive species are a problem as are pests, pesticides and the varroa mite, a carnivorous parasite that attacks honey bees.

“Starvation is a big issue and that’s really how people can help, by having bee-friendly plants in their garden, especially late-flowering autumn plants,” says Laney, who hopes to continue her workshops.

Swarm started as a tiny idea and it became a colony of enterprise. It’s the best thing I have ever done. It’s reached so many people and that’s what art should do. It should make a difference. One little girl who came to a workshop asked for a bee garden for her birthday. I was thrilled about that. That’s a real result.”

• Swarm is at the Inspired By gallery at Danby from July 22 to August 9 and at Sunnybank Mills from October 22 to November 20. laneybirkhead.com