The Art of Beekeeping – The Clark is home to hundreds of works of art—and bees
The scent of honey and wood smoke is as thick as the warm, dense hum. The worker bees are active today. A few hot days have come after cool, wet weeks, and the wild primrose are blooming in the pastures. David Thayer gently lifts a small wood and mesh box to show the new queen inside. He has left her in the hive like this, protected, to give the workers time to accept her. He removes a cork, leaving the box sealed with sugar candy that the workers will eat through to release her.
Thayer is not in the middle of a field of wildflowers; he is on the roof of the Manton Center at the Clark Art Institute, tending to the new hive. the Clark’s director Olivier Meslay brought the idea with him when he came to the museum three years ago. He has seen hives on the rooftops of Paris and knows what bees can do for the fields around them. He also loves honey. A year later, the Clark invited Thayer, a local beekeeper, to establish a hive. And so, from this rooftop, three hives now look out across the valley, across wide lawns and reflecting pools, to a tended meadow. (Three more are found on the grounds near the landscaping barn.) For the last decade, the museum has focused on sustainability. The bees and the museum have a symbiotic relationship: The bees drink water from the reflecting pools and the lily pond. They feed on nectar from the flowers, and many flowers and flowering trees need the bees.
Bees will work blossoms within five miles of their hives, says grounds manager Matthew Noyes. The workers will scout for food, nectar and pollen from native wildflowers—dandelions, red and white clover, yarrow, golden rod. The scouts know with precise timing when nectar will flow for different plants in different places. By touch and dance, they lead workers to collect it. They bring back nectar to store, and they fan it with their wings to dry and condense it into honey, like a sap house boiling 40 gallons of sap into one gallon of syrup.
As they work, they spread pollen from one flower to another. Pollen fertilizes the flower so it can germinate. As they fly, bees are not only making honey—they are making seeds and nuts, fruits and berries, and new plants.
The 140-acre campus blends from parklands into meadows and pastureland where the grasses and wildflowers grow taller. “I look at landscapes as gallery spaces,” Noyes says, and each space has a different character and needs, different slope and light, moisture and microclimate. In tending to fields and flowers, the Clark now takes the bees into account in such ways as only using compost and organic fertilizers.
“We feed the soil, not the plants,” Noyes says. Earthworms will aerate the soil. Butterflies and moths will help the bees to pollinate, and so will bats, while they keep down the mosquitoes.
The museum’s philosophy speaks to the beauty of the place: The Clark is taking part in a global conversation. Bees account for a third of the food in the country because of all the plants that depend on them, says Thayer. Populations of bees and other pollinators have fallen dramatically in the last ten years. Since 2009, use of pesticides in the U.S. has gone up 500 percent. Many farmers spray their crops, plants at garden centers can be treated with chemicals, and some homeowners use them on lawns and gardens. Those chemicals kill helpful insects along with harmful ones, and they harm and songbirds and animals that eat insects.
Farms and orchards need to protect their crops, Noyes says, but without bees, flowering trees will not bear fruit. For thousands of years, pollination has been as natural as rain, but now the loss of bees has bred a $23 billion industry—trucking in hundreds of thousands of bees to the almond orchards in California, blueberries in Maine, oranges in Florida.
Noyes does see some farmers and communities becoming more aware of natural pollinators. Williamstown became a bee-friendly community last year, and the Clark now has 120,000 bees sharing its fields with a total of six hives.
When bees feel crowded, they swarm. Scouts will find a new home, and half of the hive will set out for it, clustering around their queen. When the Clark’s bees swarmed, they went 20 feet up in a maple tree outside the Manton Center’s front door.
Swarming bees, intent on finding a new home, rarely pay any attention to people who leave them alone. Thayer set a ladder against the tree, climbed to their branch, set an empty hive box, and left them to climb into it overnight.
This spring, he found one of the hives full of brood and moved them into a new hive with a new queen. Thayer, recently named Beekeeper of the Year by the state Beekeepers Association, can be found regularly on Clark’s rooftop—harvesting honey when the bees have extra. The museum expects to have some in the shop by July, for as long as it lasts.