Bees On and Off Broadway

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I recently came across bees in an unlikely venue: a play called “Constellations” that revolves around the relationship between a physicist (Marianne) and an urban beekeeper (Roland). The play explores different perceptions of time in a way that is comprehensible to those of us who know very little, or nothing, about quantum mechanics, string theory, parallel universes and other theoretical concepts. But bees also have a role in “Constellations,” and in their own way, they get great reviews.

For one thing, the theater program quotes Roland’s wonderful description of honeybees. “They have an unfailing clarity of purpose,” he says in the play. “If only our existence were that simple. If only we could understand why it is that we are here and what it is that we are meant to spend our lives doing.”

In addition, the program handed out to the audience by Wilma Theater ushers included two black and white photos — a close-up of bees at work building honeycomb, and a picture of an urban beekeeper checking out hives on the Saint Ermins Hotel roof in Westminster, Central London.

And finally, while researching “Constellations,” British playwright Nick Payne noted that he spoke with urban beekeeper Steve Benbow, a well-known London beekeeper who has been profiled in numerous newspaper and magazines and is the author of a book titled, The Urban Beekeeper: A Year of Bees in the City.

Benbow himself might make a good subject for a play. His two grandparents were beekeepers, part of the inspiration behind his decision to launch The London Honey Company in 2004, according to an article in The New York Times. Inspiration for that venture also came during a trip to Paris when he visited hives on top of the Palais Garnier opera house and the Luxembourg Gardens.

According to the Times article, Benbow produces 10 varieties of honey distributed to well-known department stores (think Harrods) and hotels. He keeps hives on the roofs of art museums, including the Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the Victoria & Albert. In the “Constellations” program, he note that “honey produced at … the Tate Modern is toffee-like in taste and is very different from the citrus-tasting honey produced by the bees at Tate Britain, which forage on limes and giant acacias.” Clearly a man who knows his honey.

“Constellations” was first produced in London in 2012. In 2015, it moved to Broadway with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson playing Roland and Marianne. I doubt that many well-reviewed performances offer us such wonderful commentary – both poetic and educational – on bees and the starring roles they have in our everyday offstage lives.

Is a Robo Bee in Our Future?

Will honeybees welcome the idea of a drone to help them in their role as pollinators, or will they feel their prime function is being usurped by foam core, plastic and propellers?

Anna Haldewang, a senior at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia, developed what she calls “Plan Bee,” a “personal robotic bee controlled by a smart device and designed to mimic how bees pollinate flowers and crops,” according to a CNN article last month.

Haldewang says her goal is to call attention to the important role honeybees play in our food chain, to raise awareness of the dangers caused by Colony Collapse Disorder, and to create a tool that will illustrate the wonders of pollination. An actual bee is so small “that you don’t notice how … it’s pollinating flowers,” she told CNN. “With the drone, you can see how the process works.” And when it is flipped upside down, “it looks like a flower.”

The prototype is yellow and black, but that’s about the only nod to the insect it is trying to mimic. Plan Bee is made with lightweight foam core, a plastic shell and propellers to keep it in the air. “Each of the drone’s six sections has tiny holes underneath through which the devices sucks in pollen from a flower,” then stores it in a body cavity before it is “expelled for cross-pollination,” according to the CNN article.

[Actually, bees suck up nectar, not pollen; pollen is collected in little sacs on the bee’s legs. It’s unclear how this will affect’s the drone’s mechanics.]

SCAD’s design students come up with about 1,600 ideas every quarter, all part of their required  course work. Meanwhile Haldewang hopes to patent her invention, the first step to bringing Plan Bee to market. Whether or not this tiny drone will do the job that millions of honeybees perform every year – without a patent or propellers – remains to be seen. beedrone