Hive minded: Rayne MacPhee imagines the honeybees’ revenge with “Swarm”

Rayne MacPhee’s “Swarm,” an exhibition about the plight of the honeybee, is on view at the New City Arts Welcome Gallery through the month of August. The show includes this piece, "Chicago Covered in Honeycomb." Image courtesy the artist Rayne MacPhee’s “Swarm,” an exhibition about the plight of the honeybee, is on view at the New City Arts Welcome Gallery through the month of August. The show includes this piece, “Chicago Covered in Honeycomb.” Image courtesy the artist

Rayne MacPhee thought her dad was having a midlife crisis. Apropos of nothing, he’d announced to the family that he was going to start keeping bees in their Greenville, South Carolina, yard. The next weekend, there they were: A few hives and thousands of honeybees.

MacPhee didn’t pay much attention to her dad’s new hobby until she saw the inside of a hive with her own eyes. “It was instant magic,” she says about what she saw: an apiary metropolis full of activity, like a golden, amazing-smelling New York City, she says. “It’s so busy. And the buzz…it does something to you.”

She may have thought beekeeping was her dad’s midlife crisis, but it turned out to be her passion. About a decade later, MacPhee’s not only keeping honeybees in her Charlottesville-area yard, she’s making artwork about them. Her first local solo show, “Swarm,” is about the plight of the honeybee, and it’s on view at the New City Arts Welcome Gallery through the month of August.

Artist and beekeeper Rayne MacPhee with some of her honeybees. “The buzz…it does something to you,” she says. Image courtesy subject

Perhaps you’ve heard the news: Honeybees are dying at record high rates in America. According to a Bee Informed Partnership survey released in June of this year, between April 1, 2018 and April 1 2019, beekeepers reported losing about 40.7 percent of their managed honeybee hives, on top of a 40.1 percent loss the previous year.

It’s due to a constellation of reasons, including global warming and climate change; increased use of insecticides; and the increased prevalence of cell phone towers, whose signals have been shown by some studies to interfere with how bees communicate and navigate. And then there’s colony collapse disorder, a still-mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees suddenly abandon their colony, leaving behind a vulnerable queen and some nurse bees to care for the baby bees.

We should be concerned, says MacPhee. Managed honeybees contribute $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production, according to the American Beekeeping Federation. Blueberries, cherries, apples, and broccoli are almost exclusively pollinated by honeybees, and almond trees are entirely dependent on them. No honeybees, no almonds.

So, you want to help the bees…

You don’t have to keep hives to help out honeybees—you can start by just reconsidering your lawn. Think about it: Unless you’re raising cows or other grazers, you don’t really need all that grass. Bees love trees, says MacPhee, so consider planting a few more of them. Or plant a small pollinator garden that doesn’t require much tending, but can be very beneficial for honeybees and your own olfactory pleasure—aromatic lavender and basil are a good place to start, says MacPhee. Here in the Charlottesville area, a lot of folks spray for mosquitoes (understandable), but those chemicals can harm helpful insects (like honeybees). Instead of spraying, try prevention first—eliminating places around your home where water can collect, or putting up a bat house (bats eat thousands of mosquitoes a day).

MacPhee keeps two or three hives at a time, and she says that each has its own personality—some are pretty chill, others are more aggressive about her presence near the hives—and cleverly-named queen (Bee-yonce, Bee-thoven). Every year for the past few years, she’s lost half her hives. And since each hive can house up to 16,000 bees, that’s tens of thousands of bees, dead.

“I started to get really, really angry about it,” she says, in part because, as a backyard (non-commercial) beekeeper, she forms the sort of relationship with her hives that some people might have with their cats or dogs. MacPhee herself does not use insecticides, but because honeybees can fly distances of up to three miles, if anyone within a three mile distance sprays their lawn with, say, Raid Yard Guard, MacPhee’s honeybees can be affected.

In her anger, MacPhee wondered: What would bees do if they could take their revenge on us? They’d cover cities in honeycomb, she decided. Hives are rather city-like, after all.

MacPhee took a series of urban plans—including Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Siena, Italy; and Aleppo, Syria—and drew thousands of hexagons atop them to build bulbous, globby, two-dimensional honeycomb in pencil and India ink rather than beeswax. They’re oddly beautiful and curiously compelling. They’re also fairly large (about four feet by six feet), so the viewer has no choice but to confront these honeycomb cities and the message contained therein, that the bees are dying and we need to do something about it.

The same goes for the pieces incorporating taxidermied bees. As MacPhee’s hives have died over the years, she’s preserved the bodies of bees from her favorite hives and affixed them to pieces of paper in such a way that they mimic honeybee flight patterns. “I want someone to look at it and really face their impact here. You can’t avoid it when you’re looking at, well, dead [bee] bodies,” she says.

“Swarm” is about bees taking their revenge on humans (the ones who use the aforementioned insecticides that are so dangerous to bees’ existence), but there’s something hopeful about it, says MacPhee, in that it imagines how honeybees could reclaim their homes that have been stolen from them.

MacPhee knows a little about reclaiming what has been taken. She says of this work, “it was the first time in my life that I ever made work that was truly my own…a concept born out of thinking and working, and I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone’s style,” and a big chunk of it was stolen, along with her car, earlier this year. Her car was recovered but her work was not, and she had to begin all over again. But her idea remained, and she could continue on. Honeybees, she fears, might not be so fortunate.

As Welcome Gallery visitors move through “Swarm,” MacPhee hopes they consider their own human relationship to nature, however conflicting and complex it may be. “Nature is beautiful. It’s volatile. It’s precious. It’s destructive,” all at once,” she says. And while these realizations can be overwhelming, “Swarm” is a swell reminder that when tackling big problems, looking at art is often a good place to start.

Rayne MacPhee’s “Swarm,” an exhibition about the plight of the honeybee, is on view at the New City Arts Welcome Gallery through the month of August. 

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