Aug. 24, 2018

Grad student solves bee homelessness one ceramic sculpture at a time

Artist Dylan McLernon draws humans closer to bees with a honey of an idea
Dylan McLernon, a master’s student in fine arts at the University of Calgary, weaves art with science to help combat widespread bee mortality caused by human development. Using sustainable and upcycled materials like wood and clay, McLernon is creating a series of public sculptures that will serve as bee habitats.

Using upcycled materials like wood and clay, McLernon is creating sculptures that will house bees.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Struck by the plight of native bee species whose numbers are declining in Alberta, artist Dylan McLernon took matters into his own hands — literally — crafting some specially designed teapot-sized ceramic bee nest boxes. His work is on display now in the 2018 MFA Thesis Exhibition, Interstitial, at the Nickle Galleries.

“My concern for bees began when I started working with beeswax to coat wooden sculptures during my undergraduate studies,” says McLernon, an MFA student in the Department of Art. “You have to research your materials; that’s when colony collapse disorder was in the news and I learned that the problems weren’t just confined to imported European honeybees but that native bees were in trouble, too.”

Using art to induce empathy for bees

There are two complementary components to McLernon’s Nickle Galleries exhibition: Mothership and Beehabilitation. “Mothership is a space pod made from renewable material with room for a single human occupant. It’s about creating an emotional, empathetic feeling toward bees,” McLernon explains.

“Then there is Beehabilitation, which are ceramic bumblebee domiciles. I’ve made them available for people to take home and put in their garden, asking that they take part in bee research project over the spring and summer of 2019."

The inspiration to build little ceramic homes for bees grew as McLernon delved deeper into what he calls an eco-methodology in his work, and his desire to use his art to help bees. He first approached the University of Calgary’s Office of Sustainability with some ideas, and from there Rachelle Haddock put him in touch with the Faculty of Environmental Design and with Dr. Ralph Cartar, PhD, an associate professor in biological sciences and a bumblebee specialist.

McLernon has created ceramic bumblebee domiciles which are available for people to take home and put in their garden. They're asked to take part in a bee research project over the spring and summer of 2019.

McLernon has created ceramic bumblebee domiciles which are available for people's gardens.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Design that works for bees and the scientists who study them

“Ralph Cartar sent information about bumblebee domiciles that had been created by scientists,” McLernon says. “I read about the success they’d had with the plywood nest boxes, but also that they were problematic because they were getting chewed up by mice, and rotting when they were put in the ground. I thought ceramic might last longer and work better, and that’s when we started talking about a design.”

Once ceramic is fired, it becomes vitrified, more likely to shed water than wood is. And there is no need to paint it with a toxic chemical. McLernon has cooked up two different designs, one for the ground and another to be tree-mounted. The sculptures have to suit the bees: they have to be the right size for a nest of up to 50 bees, contain the right nesting material, be watertight and have a welcoming opening. They also have to work for easy deployment, i.e., fit in a backpack and not be too fragile.

An impressive 40 per cent occupancy rate

“Ralph is currently field testing the ground and tree domiciles, and we’ve actually had success! We had a 40 per cent occupancy rate of the tree domiciles, which is great,” McLernon says.

“The fact that so many of these domiciles are used suggests the bees are nest habitat-limited,” Cartar says. “It implies that putting out new nest habitats is one way to encourage the population.”

After some design fine-tuning, the plan now is to distribute a couple dozen of the sculptures free to citizen scientists who visit the Nickle Galleries exhibition. They can participate in the bumblebee study by putting the sculptures in their home gardens, reporting any bee residencies in fall 2019 to McLernon.

“The idea of using a wooden box to produce a nesting habitat is old. What Dylan has done though is taken that old idea and put a beautiful artistic spin on it, using new materials and new design,” Cartar says.

“It’s wonderful to see someone with Dylan’s talents applying them in this way,” he says. “It’s a sort of community design feature that people can see and be intrigued with and witness for themselves how well they work. If you have a nesting box with a design as pleasing to the eye as this, people are much more likely to get engaged and start using them.”

In addition to the portable bumblebee domiciles, McLernon has also created two larger sculptures for solitary bees, one at Grow Calgary and another at the University of Calgary community garden. But as Cartar points out, the social, cute, furry, big and tame bumblebees — which make up only about 25 of the 300 bee species in Alberta — are more charismatic and appealing than solitary bees, so people are more easily encouraged to become concerned for their well-being.

“What’s important to me is this is an eco-art practice, using a methodology of relational aesthetics,” McLernon says. “Relational aesthetics is about creating relationships … essentially what I’m trying to do is to create a more harmonious and functional relationship between human beings and bees.”