Susan Brackney has about 150,000 friends living in her backyard in Bloomington, Indiana.
She's a beekeeper. And she wrote the book for anyone interested in getting started in the hobby, or just learning about who's who and what's what in the hive. Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet is part of the new movement toward food self-sufficiency that also has a positive impact on the environment. In the introduction to "Plan Bee," Brackney says she could just as easily have started raising chickens in her backyard, except that at the time, the city did not allow DIY poultry. Now Bloomington has joined towns across the nation in permitting homeowners to keep a limited number of hens on the premises. The relaxed regulations extend to beehives as well, with New York City lifting its ban in 2010.
Urban beekeeper Susan Brackney models her beekeeper's hat and veil.
"It used to be that most people … kept hives of honeybees right alongside the vegetable patch or the home orchard," Brackney writes. "Partly to pay homage to that more self-sufficient time, I thought I might try beekeeping myself someday."
This interest in growing your own hyper-local food has been spurred not only by the growing Slow Food movement but the realization that large-scale farming – and total dependence on it – carries a range of risks. These risks can affect not only consumers but also our complex ecological web.
Take the honeybee. Commercial beehives are responsible for pollinating more than a third of North America's vegetable and fruit crops; almonds, apples and blueberries rely almost exclusively on bee pollination.
And now the hives, and with them the nation's food supply, are threatened by the still-mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder.
CCD causes otherwise healthy bee colonies to disappear almost overnight. It was first identified in North America in 2006 and has been studied extensively since. It's been on the rise, with about 30 percent of the commercial bee population not surviving last winter, but a definitive cause has yet to be pinpointed.
Theories abound, from use of pesticides that damage the bees' neurological system to infestations by the varroa mite; from electromagnetic radiation from cellphones to the increased use of genetically modified crops. It could be a combination of any and all these factors — or it could be sheer overwork and bad nutrition.
Urban beekeeping studied by George Washington University. Video by the Discovery Channel.
Traditionally, beekeepers allowed their hives to rest up over the winter, dedicated to keeping the queen warm until spring. However, commercial beekeepers – and their workers – keep a year-round production schedule. After spending the spring and summer among high-country peach trees and grape vines, commercial hives may be trucked from Colorado to pollinate the California almond crop in the winter.
And because those commercial hives work on a single crop at a time, the bees' diet is extremely limited compared to wild or city-raised bees, which forage in landscapes and planters within a three-mile radius of their hive.
Rev. Jacqueline Cherry, a deacon in an Episcopal Church in California, has a beehive in her backyard in San Francisco. Honey harvested from the hive is sold to benefit the church's food pantry. Photo by Rev. Jacqueline Cherry.
Urban beekeeping is one small step toward combatting CCD, according to Brackney, but the damage already done to the honeybee population might make getting started challenging.
"These days, bees are much harder to come by," she writes in "Plan Bee." "Some bee packagers were hit so hard (by CCD) that they had to close up shop for good. In turn, with fewer commercial bee packagers around, waiting lists for bees have become longer than ever."
But she remains hopeful, if not completely certain, about the future of her hard-working friends, and the people who care for them.
Robots: The Way We See Them Now
We humans have long been fascinated by the thought of machines built in our own image. From ancient times, inventors have tinkered with mechanical helpers to do our bidding, and storytellers have told cautionary tales about the dangers that lie along that path. Today, robots — a word not coined until the early 20th century — are everywhere in our daily lives. Far from the clunking, clattering, vaguely humanoid creatures of old sci-fi movies, modern robots build our cars, vacuum our floors, and are learning to be more like us every day.
Preston McGhee's Mini-Bot Charm
In part because of their constant presence in our lives, robots have become the focal point of the creative message for many environmentally conscious artists. They build the non-functioning humanoids from discarded parts left in cellars or curbside salvagables, with the goal of creating something people can relate to visually, while finding innovative uses for waste.
Preston McGhee got his start in the robot-art field by collecting old TVs, VCRs and computers back in 1982. Working in an electronic repair shop, he found himself assembling leftover parts one afternoon, and his adorable little capacitor robot was born.
McGhee says his love for robots stems from a natural appreciation for the mechanics of the human form. "The simple geometric shapes of electronic components lend themselves to constructing humans and animals," he explains.
Though he makes larger pieces, his charm-sized robots have proven to be his most popular.
Stemming from a love of exploring the artistic possibilities in found items, Nemo Gould creates various-sized robots from discarded parts. As one of the more sculptural robot designers, his work conveys a reminder that much of what has been science fiction is now unfolding before us.
"I've always liked robots because they are a very concise metaphor for humanity's desire to master the forces of creation," he says. "If man is in God's image, then robots are in man's."
The Cyclist 2009 (11" x 14" x 6"). Made from brass lamp pieces, garlic press, bicycle brake parts, film editing machine pars, boat motor parts, erector set chain and sprockets, aluminum flywheels by Nemo Gould.
Minotaur 2011 (97" x 60" x 42"). Made from a meat slicer, vacuum cleaners, bull horns, chair and able parts, motors, LEDs, refrigerator parts, belt wheels, millilamp meter, shoe trees, springs, cable, pulleys, misc. aluminum scrap by Nemo Gould. Photos by Josh Miller.
Back in the 20th century, Mark Brown was a saw painter who frequented flea markets in search of materials. Something about the vast array of metal objects available sparked his imagination, and in 2001, he began designing whimsical human shapes from scrap.
"I realized that I didn't have to work only with saws; that I could work more three-dimensionally and I could use some of these great metal shapes, such as coffee pots and cake pans, to make figures," he recalls. "They were cheap and came in endless variety, and also came in forms you could never imagine."
Penguin Clock made from found objects by Mark Brown.
For a half-century, Clayton Bailey has been pushing that thought even further with his lifelike, often anatomically correct, robot designs – then standing it on its head.
Bailey finds scrap metal and other parts at local flea markets and salvage yards for inspiration for his "wondrous" creations. They tap into our pre-conceived images of "science" and give us permission to laugh at them, and ourselves.
Barking Dog by Clayton Bailey. He has a sensor that causes him to bark at moving objects making him, according to the artist, a "desirable guard dog."
French artist Brauer uses old industrial pieces and lamps to create illuminant robot art. Being particularly fond of steel as a material, he creates pieces that reflect the potential everlasting quality of consumer products.
"In our modern world, where objects often have a single life, I aim at inventing a new existence for them by diverting them from their initial function," he says.
Robots by Brauer.
Beauty Is On The Fork Of The Beholder
The thought of "recycled food" at best conjures up images of gleaning harvested fields for edible crops left behind, or its urban equivalent, dumpster diving. Some estimates say about 25 percent of commercially produced American fruits and vegetables never make it to grocery store shelves because it's "too ugly" to sell.
The good news is that food producers and grocery stores are increasingly diverting the unattractive onion or the misshapen apple to local food banks. But that still leaves an awful lot of food waste generated by homes and restaurants that has nowhere to go but the landfill.
Some larger cities, such as Seattle, Duluth, Ottawa and San Francisco, now offer — or mandate — waste collection programs that separate food items from the rest of the household garbage for composting.
In London, however, some restaurant waste has gone straight from the kitchen to the artist's studio — and then back onto the walls of a white-tablecloth dining establishment.
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva gleaned her materials for "The Wish of the Witness" from the kitchen at Pied à Terre, a two Michelin-starred restaurant on Charlotte Street. The exhibition of 10 sculptures and installation works was displayed throughout the dining room for the months of September and October.
Land Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Created from monk fish skins, fishing line. 300 cm x 100 cm (Photo by EHV)
The works, made during Hadzi-Vasileva's eight-month residency as Pied à Terre's first "Artist in Restaurant," were constructed from raw materials the chefs had no use for, including scallop skirts and corals, quail carcasses, sheep testicles, fish skins and bones.
"The resulting works are carefully balanced between the beautiful and the brutal, recomposing decomposition into beautiful forms," Hadzi-Vasileva wrote in her artist's statement on the project.
A Wish (detail) by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Created with quail wishbones, 23.5ct gold leaf, perspex frame. Photo by EHV.
She worked closely with the restaurant's chefs and kitchen staff as she researched the project, observing their daily routine, eating in the dining room, and collecting leftovers. Once in her studio, she washed and preserved the materials with bleach and detergent. The final form of the artwork depended on the shapes and colors of the parts.
Untitled by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Created with rabbit jaw bone, 23.5ct gold, timber. Photo by EHV.
"I have always been very interested in organic materials — materials that can evolve when they go though a process of manipulation," she told MutualArt.com earlier this year. "One of the reasons I enjoy working with the materials I choose is that they challenge presumptions or limited perspectives of what art can be and how it can engage other issues. They also question notions of what can be beautiful."
This is not the first time Macedonian-born Hadzi-Vasileva has worked with food scraps. She has created art, usually large-scale installations, from membranes from pig and cow stomachs, animal heads, chicken skins and fish skins – many, many fish skins.
Her first foray into fish-skin art was in 2000, when she created a piece honoring the salmon-fishing heritage of a small town on the Tweed River in northwest England. Six months and 2,500 cleaned and preserved salmon skins later, she presented "Epidermis." She still works with salmon skins — 960 of them in "Reocurring Undulation," which was on display in London from July through September — but no longer eats fish.
Reoccurring Undulation by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva.
Pied à Terre has been part of the London art scene since the restaurant opened in 1991. This new annual residency program is a way to encourage emerging artists, and a committee of 12 curators selected Hadzi-Vasileva to launch it with a grant of £10,000 (about $15,713) — and £2,500 (about $3,928) in dining credit.
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