Honey on the roof: Clark Art Institute cultivates bees and meadows

The scent of honey and wood smoke is as thick as the warm, dense hum. The worker bees are active today. A few hot days have come after cool, wet weeks, and the wild primrose are blooming in the pastures. 

David Thayer gently lifts a small wood and mesh box to show the new queen inside. He has left her in the hive like this, protected, to give the workers time to accept her. He removes a cork, leaving the box sealed with sugar candy that the workers will eat through to release her.

He is standing on the roof of the Manton Center at the Clark Art Institute, tending a new hive.

Why does an art museum known for its Impressionists have bees on the roof? Director Olivier Meslay brought the idea with him when he came to the museum three years ago. He had seen hives on the rooftops of Paris, Thayer says, and he loves honey. He also knows what bees can do for the fields around them.

The hives look out across the valley, across wide lawns and reflecting pools to a tended meadow. For the last 10 years, and especially since its renovated campus re-opened, the museum has focused on sustainability, says Grounds Manager Matthew Noyes.

Two years ago the Clark invited Thayer, a local beekeeper, to establish a hive here.

The bees and the museum have a symbiotic relationship, Noyes says. The bees drink water from the reflecting pools and the lily pond. They feed on nectar from the flowers. And many flowers and flowering trees need the bees.  

Bees will work blossoms within five miles of their hives, Thayer says. The workers will scout for food, nectar and pollen from native wildflowers — dandelions, red and white clover, yarrow, golden rod.

“Bees’ communication is second only to us,” he says.

The scouts know with precise timing when nectar will flow for different plants in different places. By touch and dance they lead workers to collect it.

They bring back nectar to store, and they fan it with their wings to dry and condense it into honey, Thayer says, like a saphouse boiling 40 gallons of sap into one gallon of syrup.

As they work, they spread pollen from one flower to another. Pollen fertilizes the flower so it can create germinate. As they fly, bees are not only making honey — they are making seeds and nuts, fruits and berries, and new plants.

So in caring for its fields and flowers, The Clark now takes the bees into account.

Some of the museum grounds are close-mown grassy lawns, Noyes says. They are always open, long after the galleries are closed, and locals and visitors will come casually to sit on the terrace under the full moon.

The lawns blend from parklands into meadows and pastureland where the grasses and wildflowers grow taller. 

“I look at landscapes as gallery spaces,” Noyes says, and each space has a different character and needs, different slope and light, moisture and microclimate. 

The museum has changed their care of the land, he says, in ways healthier for the lawns and the bees, and for dogs and people running over the grass. 

He uses compost and organic fertilizers.

“We feed the soil, not the plants,” he says.

Earthworms will aerate the soil. Butterflies and moths will help the bees to pollinate, and so will bats, while they keep down the mosquitoes. 

The museum’s philosophy goes the beauty of the place; The Clark is taking part in a national and global conversation. 

Bees account for a third of the food in the country, Thayer says — not only from honey, but through the plants that depend on them. And they are all under threat. Populations of bees and other pollinators have fallen dramatically in the last five to ten years.

Since 2009, use of pesticides in the U.S. has gone up 500 percent. Many farmers spray their crops, plants at garden centers can be treated with chemicals, and some homeowners use them on lawns and gardens. Those chemicals kill helpful insects along with harmful ones, and they harm and songbirds and animals that eat insects.

Farms and orchards need to protect their crops, Noyes says, but without bees, flowering trees will not bear fruit.

For thousands of years, pollination has been as natural as rain, but now the loss of bees has bred a $23 billion industry — trucking in hives on flatbeds, hundreds of thousands of bees, to the almond orchards in California, blueberries in Maine, oranges in Florida.

At the same time, Noyes sees some farmers and communities becoming more aware of natural pollinators. Williamstown became a bee-friendly community last year, and the Clark now has 120,000 bees sharing its fields.

The museum began with one hive, and last summer, they expanded to a second one — dramatically. When bees feel crowded, they swarm, Thayer says. Scouts will find a new homesite, and half of the hive will set out for it, clustering around their queen. 

When the Clark’s bees swarmed, they centered 20 feet up in a maple tree outside the center’s front door, and the air was alive and loud with humming.

Swarming bees rarely pay any attention to people who leave them alone, Thayer says. They are intent on finding a new home. Visitors sat and watched them, enthralled. He set a ladder against their tree, climbed to their branch and set an empty hive box out

for them, and left them to climb into it overnight. 

This spring, he found one of the hives full of brood, young bees, and he moved them into a new box with a new queen.

Dave Thayer also harvests the Clark’s honey when the bees produce extra, and the museum carries it in their shop while it lasts. Given the weather and the season, they hope to have some on hand in July. He is also on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association, and has just been named their Beekeeper of the Year.

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