That’s Not Burr Comb, it’s Art: A Man and Bee Collaboration

By Tom Springer, Beekeeper and Writer

With typical human hubris, beekeepers often refer to their work as the “art of beekeeping.” As if it were beekeepers that had wax glands under their armpits, and the ability to fashion a flawless hexagon cell while hanging upside down in a darkened hive.

Not so for artist and beekeeper Ladislav Hanka. In an act of co-creation that’s rare in the worlds of apiaries and art galleries, he’s eager to give bees their due. Hanka installs his handmade prints into hives, and invites bees to adorn them with renditions of propolis and burr comb.

“I can’t recall seeing anyone else create this kind of art,” said Hanka, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who’s been a full-time artist since 1981. “And people are pleasantly surprised when they see what the bees and I have done. So much art these days is cold and distant-more intellectual exercise than sensual gratification; and it can make people feel intimidated or excluded.

“I don’t care for that approach. I prefer to open the door and include my audience, maybe give them some text and information with which to work. Inclusivity is far kinder and more interesting.”

Hanka, 58, has kept bees for three years. Although given his track record as an advocate for nature, and an artist whose work deeply embodies the natural world, it’s a wonder he didn’t start sooner. In the mid-1980s, he received international media attention for an act of civil disobedience that any bee would applaud: he refused to mow his yard.

Then, as now, Hanka lived in a stately, 1850s home that once housed doctors from the nearby Michigan Asylum for the Insane. He wanted his yard, set in a grove of old basswood trees, to sprout native wildflowers instead of turf grass. That famously put him at odds with an ordinance that required residents to maintain short-cropped lawns.

In a landmark victory for native landscapers, the case led Kalamazoo to liberalize its lawn ordinance. Today, Hanka’s untamed yard contributes greatly to the robust honey and art production of his two hives.

In modified honey super frames, Hanka inserts paper prints made from one of his hand-engraved zinc plates. To help get things started he drizzles on a little bees wax and affixes small chunks of burr comb. The best results have come in early summer when hives are at peak wax production.

“It’s beautiful. They take what’s there and re-make it as their own,” he said. “Though sometimes they chew up my artwork and spit it out front with the dead bees and earwigs. Who knows? Maybe there’s some art critics or labor union organizers in there.”

The grand sweep of Hanka’s distinctive work portrays trees, roots, fish, birds, frogs, mushrooms and entire landscapes with an intensity of detail that borders on the mystical. There’s little above ground or under it that escapes his eye. So understandably, he won’t just stick any old print into a hive.

“It’s a trait of insects that they like to kill and embalm things for later use,” Hanka said. “Along that theme, I’ll give the bees prints of a dying bird, dying salmon or bee tree to build on. That connects their purpose with my art. They’re not just decorating an irrelevant piece with honey comb.”

Buoyed by a renewed interest and concern for bees, art patrons have enthused over the honeycombed handiwork. Yet some gallery managers, who professionally obsess over dirt and disorder, have been more reserved.

“They don’t want anyone to introduce ‘vermin’ into their galleries, and some see bees as just that. In one framed piece, I did have a wax moth hatch and start to make a little mess. I should probably use some naphthalene to make sure everything’s dead.”

And around the Hanka home, the bee research doesn’t stop with art. Trained as a chemist, with degrees in biology and zoology, Hanka doesn’t mind experimenting on himself. Last year, he self-inflicted more than 100 stings as a treatment for arthritis.

“It’s really worked well for my tennis elbow,” Hanka said. “Several other people I’ve treated have responded well too, including my 87 year-old mother. I gave her 10-15 stings in the lower back. She’s been able to get up and down the stairs easier than she has in 10 years.

“Whenever I visit her now, I better have some live bees with me.”

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