Exhibition At St Johns College, Oxford
8 September 2010 – 8 October 2011

In 2011, I was invited by Dr. Shirley Wheeler to make new work for a multi-media exhibition at St. John’s College, Oxford University, based around the theme Virus. The brief for this project was broad and flexible. The exhibition aimed to engage the public with the science of viruses through a variety of creative approaches – approaches informed by some aspect, understanding or inspiration gained from the scientific knowledge pertaining to viruses. The exhibition provided insights, challenges and perspectives that help to lead people to a new or different comprehension of this field of science. It took a fresh look at this area of science through the eyes of contemporary artists and designers and was deliberately multidisciplinary with two, three dimensional and interactive work.

For my work, I decided to take the theme of the decline of the bumblebee – a decline caused by the spread of viruses – a spread which can, to some extent, be contained if the bee population is healthy – and this will only occur if there is a plentiful supply of pollen. My work for this show, then, focused on the plants that supply bees with pollen.

The meaning of the words is as follows:

 QUILLET- White Clover; CHAW – Hawthorn; OKERDU – Bugle; SQUARRIB – Figwort; DRISAG –  Bramble; HISKHEAD – Selfheal; TASSEL – Knapweed ; FITCHES – Common Vetch; SWINNIES – Thistle; CLAVER – Bird’s-foot-trefoild; GRIGGLES – Bluebell; PAIGLE – Cowslip; TWADDGERS – Bush Vetch; HAWS – Dog Rose; COCKENO – Poppy; SNOXUM – Foxglove

And: HONEYSTALKS – Red Clover; LIGHTNINGS; Poppy; WITCHES’ THIMBLE – Bluebell; HOKY-POKY – Nettel; BUMBLE-KITES – Foxglove; TOUCH-AND-HEAL – St. John’s-wort; LOVE ENTANGLED – Bird’s-foot-trefoil; BEE-BREAD – White Clover; DEVIL’S PLAYTHING – Betony; TUZZY-MUZZY – Burdock; WEASEL-SNOUT – Toadflax; DEADMENS’ BELLOWS – Bugle; DRUMMER BOYS – Knapweed; PRINCE’S FEATHER – Selfheal; CHURCH BELLS – Comfrey

For my piece for the exhibition Bad News Wrapped in Protein, I have taken a slightly elliptical view of the theme. On my recent walks, I have enjoyed encountering all of the six common species of bumblebees. However, I am aware that their population is declining – and that this decline in the number of pollinators could have serious implications for our environment as well as serious economic implications.

As Chrissie Giles says ‘ we all know that bees make honey, but they do much more for the food we eat. Bees (and other insects) including wasps and hoverflies, pollinate plants … for some crops, such as melons, no pollinators means no fruit. For others, no pollinators means a lesser harvest. This widespread role of insects in food production is reflected in insect pollinators’ economic value – estimated to be around £130bn globally in 2005.’

What is causing this decline? At present, scientists are looking into the reasons – and the Insect Pollinator’s Initiative (jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Scottish Government, DEFRA and the Wellcome Trust) has been launched to find out why.

One of the main reasons for the decline in the wild bee population would appear to be a variety of viruses, some of which are capable of quickly destroying whole colonies. The Initative is setting out to understand the threats posed by viruses better, however, one thing seems clear – Professor Jane Memmott from the University of Bristol says that ‘if bees are not properly fed, then they’re more likely to catch diseases’.

So, at a basic level, if we can provide our bees with a better habitat – a wild flower rich environment with a bountiful supply of pollen  – then they will be better ‘protected’ from the viruses that threaten them.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust says that ‘Bumblebees should be a conservation priority, but at present not enough is being done to help them – sadly, nature reserves are not enough on their own. Bumblebee nests are large and each nest needs a large area of flowery habitat. To support healthy populations, sensitive bee-friendly management needs to be carried out throughout the UK. 

We need to provide farmers and land managers with advice on how to help bees Small changes can make a big difference.There are simple ways to encourage wildflowers in hedgerows, meadows and orchards. In gardens and other urban areas nationwide we need to encourage the use wildflowers and traditional cottage-garden plants. We need many more colourful wildflowers in urban areas!

The solution is simple!By whatever means possible we need to create a mosaic of flower-rich habitat across the whole of the UK. Bumblebees need small patches of wildflowers here and there in field corners, margins, gardens, waste ground, roadside verges – anywhere.

If people put in the flowers, the bees will find them…My recent walks have been through urban and semi rural environments (areas that have been called the Edgelands of our world). I have especially enjoyed coming across a wide variety of wildflowers on brownfield sites on the urban fringe – sites that are not protected, but which hold a valuable source of pollen for bees.  

In producing this work, I hope, in a small way, that I can help to raise people’s awareness not just of the fact that our population of bees is declining at an alarming rate, but that we, as well the scientists, CAN do something about it. We need to value the diversity of Flora and Fauna (after all, it is the birds that distribute the seeds that help sustain the wildflower populations) that is on our own doorstep, and not just rely on the work of large-scale conservation organisations. The wildflowers in our urban environment are an amazing source of stimulation and surprise, should we stop and look. My work celebrates this diversity of colour and scents. I have named a number of the flowers that I have encountered in my recent urban meanderings in and around Tyne and Wear – flowers that are known to be used by bumblebees, including

Alkanet; Birdsfoot Trefoil; Bluebell; Borage; Bugle; Comfrey; White and Red Deadnettle; Forget-me-not; Foxglove; Hawksbeard, Meadow Buttercup; Pansy; Teasel; Toadflax; Wood Aven; Yarrow and Woundwort.

* Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World. New York: Pantheon Books