Mark Randall, co-proprietor of Worldstudio, founder of Design Ignites Change and director of the School of Visual Arts’ IMPACT Design for Social Change summer intensive program, continues to generate a lot of buzz. This time as a master bee keeper (below bottom).
Bees have become somewhat endangered and many people are turning to urban bee keeping to keep the birds and bees interdependency on a sure footing. I asked Randall some stinging questions about this new surge in apiculture.
Why did you start tending bees?
When I was a kid, my uncle – a physics professor – was a weekend beekeeper. From the moment I saw his hive it captivated me. I was fascinated by the complex nature of their society and by the fact that you got honey (warm toast with peanut butter and honey, need I say more.) When I was in college I attempted to keep bees at my mother’s house. It was about 60 miles away, and the rigors of design school kept me pretty busy so I was never able to take care of them properly. Fast forward 16 years to 2001, I had just bought a weekend house in the country, so one of the first things I did was take a course from the Sullivan County Beekeeper’s Association on how to set up an apiary. It’s now been ten years and I am totally hooked.
I hate being stung. Didn’t I hear that you are allergic to bee stings?
Me too! Several years ago a somewhat mild bee sting escalated into a severe reaction that put me in the hospital. The doctor in the emergency room suggested that maybe beekeeping was not such a good hobby for me. He then casually mentioned that the previous year someone came in with a bee sting and died. I had been stung many times in the past which resulted in a lot of balloon-like swelling. Once three bees got into my shoe – I could not walk for a week. I remain undeterred, and I now own several Epi-pens. I always think of the the scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta jabs Uma Thurman in the heart with an adrenalin filled needle after she overdoses. Fortunately, I have not had to use the Epi-pen.
Since you are a designer. Is there some kind of design relationship to bees going on here?
Bees lead a very ordered life – they are great communicators and excellent designers. The comparison of bee hives to human civilization has been made throughout history, in 1867, British caricaturist and book illustrator George Cruikshank, created a wonderful etching, a taxonomy of British society in the form of a beehive. The traditional image of a beehive is really a “skep” which is a basket made of coils of grass or straw. Skeps were used mainly in Europe up until the mid-19th century.
The structure of honey comb is a feat of precision, engineering and strength, a mass of hexagonal wax cells built by honey bees to contain larvae, stores of honey and pollen. To produce wax, bees must process about eight pounds of honey for one pound of wax. It is estimated that bees fly 150,000 miles, roughly six times around the earth, to yield that one pound. In the natural world bees build comb into some of the most beautiful undulating shapes to rival any building by Frank Gehry.
Today, bees and skep beehives – representing strength and industry – are used as a brand for thousands of businesses around the world. This all comes together in the state of Utah who’s particular obsession with the hive is rooted in Mormon iconography, in which the beehive is a symbol of the Kingdom of God. Not only does the beehive represent religious fervor, it is the state seal and brand for many a Utah company ranging from Beehive, purveyors of “meat recovery and separator equipment” to Beehive Pipe Products a supplier of pipe fittings. The Salt Lake Bees are a minor league baseball team based in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Do you keep bees for the honey. Or is here a greater consequence?
Honey is certainly a wonderful by product, if all you have ever tasted is the bland grocery store variety then you are missing out on a rich and varied experience. Color and flavor are determined by the types of flower blossoms visited by the bees. There are more than 300 unique types of honey in the United States alone. They say that eating local unprocessed honey is a good remedy for allergies. The honey I get from local wildflowers in upstate New York is light in spring, and by early fall it has turned to a deep rich amber that glows with the light of a late summer afternoon.
I also keep bees as a form of meditation. I find them endlessly fascinating. On a warm sunny day outside the hive the sky is full of worker bees going about their business – there is a mesmerizing, contemplative hum in the air. Sometimes I just hang out and watch them, and no matter how stressed I may be, it makes the world feel just a bit better.
Aren’t you “head” of a bee keeper group? How does one become a bee keeper? Is a license required?
Actually, I am just a lowly “member” of several beekeeping groups. Just about anywhere you can find a local association of hobby beekeepers. I am am member of the Wayne County Beekeeper’s Association in Pennsylvania as well as the New York City Beekeepers Association. Anyone can be a beekeeper, there is no license required, in some states – like New York – you register your hives so the local apiary inspector can stop by to check them for disease. Most likely through a local beekeeping group you can take a one day course in how to get started.
In the spring of 2010, beekeeping was legalized in New York City. There are bee hives on the roof of the Paris Opera House, and I am in discussion with AIGA to put a hive on their green roof. Then there really will be designer bees!
You package your honey and label it too (top and bottom). Is this going to become a business?
I have a friend (a graphic designer) who has a fantastic shop in Honesdale, Pennsylvania called Milkweed. I sell my honey there, and then give it away to family and friends. Some day this might turn into a business, I think about it a lot and I have some ideas percolating.
What have you learned about bees that equates to your work with clients?
Persistence. Bees are very resilient and incredibly hard working, I equate them more as a metaphor for life. One of the more impressive aspects of a bee hive is how they all work together for the success of the hive. It is the single driving force behind the life of the colony. A hive is a complex system that runs without the benefit of individual leadership. The queen is really no more than an egg laying slave – she does not govern the hive. The bees have specific assigned tasks which evolve over their relatively short lives. There are nurse bees, bees that clean, funerary bees that remove other dead bees and bees that collect pollen and nectar. It is selfless collective purpose which unites the colony. It’s kind of utopian, all these great designers working together for the common good.