Jarrett Mellenbruch, artist and beekeeper, on his 2016 project to highlight and improve the plight of honey bees

 Link to video

Photo by David Eulitt: Kansas City Star

Photo by David Eulitt: Kansas City Star

Haven Bridges Art, Science and Public Engagement

jarrett-mellenbruchJarrett: Haven is a part-science, part-art, part-public project that seeks to address the recent decimation of the wild honey bee population.

It functions as a research tool, it functions as a public educational piece, and it seeks to foster empathy towards another living species on our planet.

One of the main things that [my Rocket Grant] did was it took my practice beyond the gallery walls, the studio walls, and took it out into a larger community – parks, gardens private homes – and allowed me to engage with a whole other public.


What Makes This Art?

So there’s a question sometimes that I’m asked: ‘What makes this art?’

For me, art is something that makes an empathetic connection with people. It’s something that uses materials and mediums to make people feel. And that’s what Haven is really all about is connecting with people.

Marcel Duchamp removed functionality from objects and they became art. I think it’s an interesting paradigm shift to be able to suggest that we can add functionality to objects and also have them be art.

Some viewers of Haven might not be the type of person that would go to a gallery. But when they come across something like this in a park and they can understand what it’s about, the functionality is an important part in bringing them into the story. And helping to deliver the message and sharing something with them, and to me that’s at the heart of making art.

Designed for public space

Part of Haven’s design was to first make people comfortable with its presence, and aesthetically what that meant to me was referencing things like archetypical haven-card-front-2Romanesque architecture with arches, a white rural church, a farmhouse, a bird house, a Martin house. These are things that people are all pretty comfortable accepting in their presence and I wanted people to see it in that light first and just enjoy it being next to them – and then realize, second, that this is a place where honey bees are living.

So the hive is situated on top of a sixteen-foot tall post, a steel post. And that’s both for the benefit of the honey bees because that’s their…minimum preferred height – where they like to live – and it also works great for people visiting the sculpture.

At sixteen feet up, it’s close enough for you to be able to see what’s going on – you can watch the bees fly in and out of the hive, but you’re on a completely different plane from them because they don’t come down and linger around the hive, they disappear off into the sky. So you can be quite close to them and at the same time feel entirely safe.

Partnership is at the heart of the project

Well, I have a long list of partners I think, maybe starting first with the bees. And I can’t ask them exactly what they’re getting out of it, but I’m giving them a pretty good place to live. I work primarily with – or entirely with – wild honey bees, which means I catch them in the wild. They’re in a position where they have a marginal chance of making it to a new home when they’re searching on their own. I give them this solid place to live and in that sense I feel like there is some sort of inter-species communication going on, on my behalf. I’m not going to presume that they sense that.


There’s a mission [that] connects with a lot of people. It connects with people who are environmentally aware. I’m dealing with the decline of the honey bees. I’m looking for ways to inform people about what’s happening as well as address the issue – do some research into that problem – and be able to be able to put something out there that people can see, and more easily, viscerally understand the dynamic that’s going on with the bees.

In a in a very metaphorical and literal sense, we’re working with an insect that is community-based. They are a super-organism. We’re a super -organism. We are intensely community-based and there are so many parallels going on here…

Patron partnerships

I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this project without all of the partnerships.

The patrons that have sponsored the newest hives – I think it gives them a way to engage with something that they care about but don’t really know how they can get involved. And this is very direct. They’re able to sponsor a hive, communicate where they’d like to see it – whether it’s on their private property or in a public park.

And some of them have in fact continued to… volunteer with me after and help install other hives, just because they got wrapped up in the whole process. People that host hives in their yards send me texts and photos and updates on how they’re doing – which is very helpful, actually. And when I sense that there is that relationship building, I feel comfortable texting them back and asking them on certain days what they are seeing, and keeping a relationship going.


Science partnerships

… I consider it a collaboration with the researchers that I’ve been dealing with. They’ve given me invaluable input, insight into the nature of wild honeybees – how they live, their habits – beyond what we know about conventional bee keeping.

My partnership with the … Kansas City, Missouri Parks Department, has been instrumental in placing [hives] at some of their sites. I never would have imagined being closely involved with the… Parks Department and how they operate, the Kansas City Zoo, working with veterinarians there.

The parks department has gotten back to me since and mentioned that now when they go to the national parks conventions and things like that they include Haven as being one of the interesting things that they’re doing here in Kansas City which is very important to me. I want to make sure that anybody that I’m working with has a sense that this is good for everybody involved, and that they want to share it with, you know, beyond our city.

Institutional & business partnerships

haven-18broadwaye-smAside from the funding which was instrumental in making it happen at all, the Rocket Grants program allowed me to contact people like D.S.T., the owner of the property where the first hive went. And I wasn’t alone when I was contacting them because I was working through the Rocket Grants program. I had been almost vetted, … so that I was approaching this major corporation that owns a central piece of property in downtown Kansas City, and I was able to say ‘Hi I’m part of this program, I’ve received some funding, it’s for a public art project and I would really like to work on your property’.

My… partnerships with the …schools, the gardens. And working with universities, giving lectures. It really just is something that’s become very expansive… something that I feel like I am just looking to sort of be a catalyst for.

And the support that comes from outside of my project is the only thing that keeps it going… Collaboration is such an important part of Haven because without it Haven can’t spread.


Kansas City spurring innovation

Kansas City is the place you can experiment. Kansas City is a place of innovation. You can make mistakes here, you can pioneer things. There’s a lot of room for this kind of thought.

Pretty early on I realized that this would probably be a lifelong project for me. I’m looking to install a thousand of these hives across the country and Kansas City has been the testing ground for that. And I think I’m at the point now where this proof of concept phase is sort of coming to a conclusion and the project seems to be in a position to spread to other cities.

Now that [the] first stage is over I’m able to start focusing more on aspects of the project like: How do we best collect data from these hives? Right now I’m exploring the idea of electronic sensors installed in the hives that are connected to the Internet via a cellular service, so that every hive will be able to transmit real-time streaming data right to the website that can clue us into the health of every hive connected in the network.


Once we start to see that bees in these hives are doing better in one area and worse in another, we can start to ask why – we can start to get down close and analyze what’s going on in those zones. We can look at their genetics. We can start to compare bees that were local to an area and living there in a wild capacity versus bees that have been imported from outside breeders. There’s just a really great amount of stuff that can come out of this project and now I’ve begun to shift my focus to those things.

Artistic leadership

putting-on-insulation-smI think there is an interesting opportunity for new types of leadership, that’s communal leadership, research leadership, … and artistic leadership.

And I think today on the top of people’s minds are a lot of big problems that we face. Whether that’s climate change or food security or the economy, or whatever it may be… as an artist I think part of what I do naturally is respond to what happens in the world around me. And right now some of those responses tend to take more than just a symbolic perspective… maybe even symbolically take action.

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