Up to 150 species of animals, insects, flora and fauna are being lost every day and we, as humans, are wholly responsible. Scientists have declared a sixth mass extinction is underway and we only have a short window of time in which to act.
Bees play a particularly important role within our ecosystem and their population is being continuously threatened by environmental factors including loss of habitat as green spaces disappear, unrestricted use of pesticides and weather patterns and temperatures shifts beyond the norm. Together these contribute to the rapid decline in numbers of bees. Recent surveys have highlighted that the overall picture for bees is one of serious decline, with 71 out of 267 species under threat and more than 20 already extinct.
Bees are champion pollinators and responsible for pollinating three out of four crops worldwide and are crucial for food production, human livelihoods and biodiversity. If their demise continues, the implications will be catastrophic causing both a global and ecological crisis.
Put simply, without bees there would be no us, as Albert Einstein is rumoured to have declared: ‘If the bee
disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.’
In 2020, a group of ten second year drama and theatre students inspired by their Politically Engaged Practice module felt strongly enough about the importance of bees to form a swarm of their own and take flight. Dressed as bees whilst pulling a cart named the ‘Hive of Activity’ (filled with seed bombs, bee-themed cakes, bee fact leaflets and craft activities to encourage bees into gardens) we took to the streets of York to give bees a platform to tell their story. As a collective we believed passionately in reminding people that we hold the future of bees in our hands – and that their future is also our own.
Our flight path meandered from outside York Minster to Kings Square, Parliament Street, St Helen’s Square and the Museum Gardens. We felt that by being peripatetic, we would reach a wider audience and if we were asked to move on, we would easily be able to do so, without disruption as we were eager to stage a peaceful protest.
We were keen to break the fourth wall between artist and spectator and explore ways in which our arts activism campaign could instigate a dialogue with the public. As we approached people dressed as bees, offering leaflets and seed bombs filled with bee-friendly flowers, passersby soon became part of our event. One gentleman we approached spoke of an incentive in Sheffield where they have introduced two million honeybees to hives around the city. Two students from Leeds spoke about an old Jewish custom honouring bees to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and people proudly told us where the seed bombs would be planted, from Glasgow to London, Scarborough to Barnsley and as far afield as Sweden, Amsterdam and Russia.
We viewed our protest as a form of relational aesthetics, in which rather than being an object, a painting or a play, the art exists in human relationships and the creation of collective experiences. The idea perhaps traces its roots back to Allan Kaprow’s earlier Happenings, as we offered each participant a unique encounter that was transient, non-replicable and defined by our actions rather than an arts object.
We also drew inspiration from the guerrilla gardening movement and community seed swaps, making 300 seed bombs to hand out to the public. Made from soil and clay and filled with pollen-rich, bee-friendly flower seeds, the public were encouraged to take them away and plant them in gardens, window boxes or public spaces. The action itself a symbolic commitment to take practical action. Growing plants, especially from seed, allows people to slow down, appreciate the seasons and helps them pay closer attention to the nature that is around them.
Many people asked further questions about plants they could buy for their garden that would help bees and several people offered money for the seed bombs and were taken aback when they learned they were free. This small act of giving away something seemed to give people the permission to connect and engage with us on a deeper level, instead of avoiding or rushing past us altogether. Our swarm became something carnival-like, and as we paraded through the streets gaining the public’s attention many people voluntarily approached us, rather than vice versa.
Ultimately, we realised the importance of empowering people to make a difference, rather than staging an angry protest that accentuates what people are not doing.
Ultimately, we realised the importance of empowering people to make a difference, rather than staging an angry protest that accentuates what people are not doing. The gentle steps of quiet activism worked well in contrast to the loud, often self-alienating, large footsteps of a more anarchic protest, though as we travelled through York market, we passed a plastic flower stall and I could not stop myself from shouting, ‘Plastic flowers don’t feed bees!’ to the mortification of some of my fellow activists.
We may not have changed pesticide legislation or affected the plastic flower industry, but on a small scale our hope is that seed bombs will be planted, flowers will grow, bee hibernators will be made and we may have inspired a few more people to help bees and make more ecologically sustainable choices now and for future generations to carry forward.
Bee the Change are Jane Corbett, George Bourne, Liv Hall, Chloe Holburn, Eliza Jackson, Rachael Lanaghan, Rebecca Lawn, Grace Mclean, Beth Smith, Rosie Sykes second year BA Drama and Theatre students at York St John University.