Rocket Grant winner melds science and art in beehive project for Kansas City Zoo

Jarrett Mellenbruch,, of Roeland Park was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting at Rhode Island School of Design and a master of fine arts degree at Maine College of Art in Portland.

Mellenbruch met his partner of 20 years, Grace Suh, while living in New York for 12 years. The couple moved to Kansas City in 2007, when they were expecting their second child. Their kids are now 12 and 9.

Mellenbruch, who teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute, won a 2016 Rocket Grant, awarded by the Charlotte Street Foundation in conjunction with the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas and the Andy Warhol Foundation. The $6,000 award will pay for developing and placing a monitor inside a sculptural hive for wild honeybees that will be installed at the Kansas City Zoo. The monitor will record vital information for scientists studying the colony collapse crisis.

In 2010, Mellenbruch was one of the first recipients of a Rocket Grant; for that project, he built a prototype beehive.

This conversation took place at Mellenbruch's home, where he has four hives inhabited by wild honeybees in his yard awaiting installation as part of his ongoing Haven project,

Q: How did you, as an artist, become interested in bees?

A: I'm a third-generation beekeeper, so I've always been around bees. I've always been interested in science, and in particular, biology, so bees and art are a natural fusion for me.

When we lived in New York, I wasn't able to keep bees and I made up for that by reading a lot about them, and that's when I learned about colony collapse disorder and a lot of other problems bees are facing.

Q: What is colony collapse disorder?

A: In 2006, beekeepers began reporting something strange: Bees just quit coming back to their hives; they would just disappear.

Beekeepers are used to dealing with the death of a colony by finding a bunch of dead bees inside from a particular cause. This was different: The bees were just leaving and no one knew what was happening to them. They were leaving a brood growing in the honeycomb cells, which bees would never do. They were leaving the food, leaving the queen, so it was very mysterious.

I would like to have an interface, maybe an iPad, that we can have on view at the zoo so people can see the hive and watch the bees and at the same time see what information we are able to gather from them.

Q: That is fascinating from a biology standpoint. Where is the art component of your project?

A: One, the functionality of the piece is an inherent part of the art. As an artist working during a time when there is more and more awareness of major problems that affect the planet's resiliency, whether that be global warming or damage to pollinators that we need for a third of our food supply, I wanted to make a work that engages that situation in some way.

There is also, beyond the aesthetics of the hive itself and the user interface I can create for the monitor, there is, for me, an emotional component to it, a feeling of being compelled to do something.

Q: How do you hope visitors to the zoo will encounter your hive?

A: I hope they experience it as an object that has been beautifully designed. I hope they enjoy watching the bees come and go.

I think emotionally you can connect to the fact that it's been designed to help address a problem. I think intellectually, the information the sensor is going to be able to collect and build up year after year will provide really valuable data. It's very multifaceted.

Q: How is a Haven hive different from a commercial beekeeping hive?

A: A traditional hive is a compromise between what the bees want and what the beekeeper needs to manage the bees and get the honey from the bees and transport the bees across the country to go pollinate almond trees, say.

I designed the Haven hive to mimic how bees live in nature. They are 16 feet tall, they can go in public parks and gardens. The interior dimension is more like what the bees like in nature, usually a hollow tree trunk. There is no supplemental feeding or medication offered to the bees; it is purely a way to observe the way bees live in the wild.         

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