YSP Guide


The Bee Library

24 book-nests for solitary bees
Alec Finlay with Rachel Bollen, 2012
Upper Lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Art is a refinement; one that is made, typically, by means of an exchange, whether of material or context.

Reading gleans knowledge, which writing refines into poetry – as nectar is refined to honey.

The Bee Library was installed in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, May 2012 and will be deinstalled during the Summer of 2014. It was the first in a series of installations, with the second library realised at the 18th Biennale of Sydney, June 2012, and others appearing across the British Isles, listed on the menu page.

Constructed from a book, bamboo, wire-netting and water-proofing, each nest offers shelter for solitary bees – Tawny Mining Bees, Red Mason bees, Hairy Footed Flower Bees, White Faced Bees, Wool Carder Bees – which are crucial to pollination, but whose numbers are in steep decline.

The book-nests adapt the now familiar 'bee-hotel'. They share some similarities with the nest-boxes and letterboxes that I have already installed at YSP: being modest containers. They attempt the tricky task of being an artwork in the outdoors, sharing themselves with a multitude of folk, while remaining fragile – not metal, not monumental.

The nests are not meant to last. Paper will begin to flute, mould and decay immediately. The slow aging process of the indoor library is here supplanted for the rapid effects of weathering, as materials are exposed to rain, wind and, in time, snow and frost.

We may take our cue from the bees themselves, who survive for only a brief time – though not brief to them.

bees are the souls

of the summer

the clock

whose dial

records moments

of plenty

the bee’s body

measures the day

any point

within that day

is remembered

in its body


but it cannot

count beyond
that day

(Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee; von Frisch, The Dancing Bees)

photograph: Damon Waldock, 2012

In each location twenty-four bee-related books have been converted into nests for solitary bees. To date, over 100 books have been identified for the first stages of this global project.

An exchange is enacted: (indoor) thinking, for (outdoor) dwelling.

The books stray beyond bee lore into various orders of knowledge – apiculture, science, myth – each of which employs the bee, hive, or bee society in some way, as symbol or metaphor. 

Specialism is an industrial mode, an intensification. It brings with it an excess yield and, sometimes, catastrophe, as with CCD.

We experience our world through hybridity; genre is another form of intensification, going against human nature, our own variousness and breadth of interest. 

In this sense, my bee projects relate to the earlier work I made for EAST international (2005), the black tulip, which considered tulipomania as a mode of speculative finance. As with bees, tulips are bred, modified and classified; the impetus toward increase, or aesthetic perfection, may run counter to nature.

The texts of the books have been refined into poems; close reading, done with a poet's lay curiosity, catching hold of a few facts to be shared and preserved.

This residue outlasts the books themselves, which are lost to us in being given over to wild bees. They belong now to a northern English landscape, a woodland ecology, a walk beside a lake.

The Bee Poems are largely found poems. They are published online.

Home to a King (3), 2010; 'a wash, a shave, a shower (3)'

The bee library takes its place alongside other projects I have created at YSP: Home to a king (3) and circles through the path. These began with the curator Alex Hodby's invitation to work together,  exploring the wider expanse of the Park, finding ways to interact with the way people wandered through the landscape.

The implication was to suggest an alternative to the proliferation of large bronze objects which punctuate the Park. Again, to accept the effects of time and weather.

I have referred to these works, loosely, as microtonal, in the sense of offering many small points of interest across a wide field.

The bee project is also a response to pre-existing projects, such as Rebecca Chesney's survey of wild bees at YSP – in recognition of which her catalogue was one of the titles converted into a nest.

The bee library extends into a relatively new area of YSP, around the lake; it forgoes the formal composition of the Parkland vistas around Bretton Hall, dotted with sculptural masses in their many configurations, and invites the visitor to step into the woodland, a dense interior space of verticals and leafage, in which epic sculptural forms can no longer dominate.

There is no ecology more wonderful than a wood of mature trees in which to attempt to achieve equilibrium for works of art and environment.

The route wanders around the lake, in a horseshoe, from either side of the bridge. The nests are there to be spotted, if you wish. The plaques supply the necessary bibliographical information, along with the species of tree that the nest is resident in.

These titles convey authority, but the artworks themselves conceal the books’ texts within an internal structure – Aristotle, Ruskin, Maeterlinck, Von Frisch, greats all, all subsumed to the needs of the solitary bee.

A similar arc holds sway in our studies of honey-bees, which have evolved from the traditional portrait of the queen, ruler, defining the “spirit of the hive” – as Maeterlinck’s defines the mystery of bee behaviour – to the emphasis in modern studies on bee society, the communication of the many, recently related by Seeley to promoting democratic decision making among our species, and, in contemporary science, the concept of the hive as a superorganism, a kind of living computer.

The bee library: a

1. Archer, Michael E., The Wasps, Ants and Bees of Watsonian Yorkshire (Weymouth: Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, 2002)

2. Aristotle, History of Animals: Books VIII-X, ed. D. M. Balme (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991)

3. Buxton, Simon, The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters (Vermont: Destiny Books, 2004)

4. Cheshire, Frank, Practical Bee Keeping: Plain Instructions to the Amateur for the Successful Management of the Honey Bee, Vol. I (London: The Bazaar Office, 1879)

5. Chesney, Rebecca, Diligent Observation: A year of bees on the Bretton Estate (Wakefield: Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2011)

6. Crane, Eva (ed.), Dictionary of Beekeeping Terms, Vol. 7 (Bucharest: Apimondia, 1978) 

7. Davies, Andrew, Bee Keeping: Inspiration and Practical Advice for Would-be Smallholders (London: Collins
& Brown, 2007)

8. Foster, A. M., Bee Boles and Bee Houses (Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications, 1988)

9. Frisch, Karl Von., tr. Dora Ilse, The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee (London: the Country Book Club, 1955)

10. Gates, Phillip, Spring Fever: The Precarious Future of Britain’s Flora and Fauna (London: HarperCollins, 1992)

11. Graves, Robert, The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth (London: Faber & Faber, 1948) 

12. Hamill, Sam (tr.), The Little Book of Haiku (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2002)

13. Harrison, Jane Ellen, Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (London: Cambridge University Press, 1912)

14. Hesiod, Hesiod: Works and Days, ed. T. A. Sinclair (London: Macmillan & Co., 1932) 

15. Hooper, Ted, Guide to Bees and Honey (Dorset: Blandford Press, 1985)

16. Howes, F. N., Plants and Beekeeping: an account of those plants, wild and cultivated, of value to the hive bee, and for honey production in the British Isles (London: Faber & Faber 1979)

17. Huber, Francis, New Observations Upon Bees, tr. C. P. Dadant (Illinois: American Bee Journal, 1926)

18. Plath, Sylvia, Ariel (London: Faber & Faber, 2010)

19. Preston, Claire, Bee (London: Reaktion Books, 2006)

20. Ransome, Hilda M., The Sacred Bee: In Ancient Time and Folklore (Burrowbridge, Bridgwater: Bee Books New & Old, 1986)

21. Ruskin, John, 'Fors Clavigera: Letters 37-72', The Works of John Ruskin, ed. Cook, E. T. & Alexander Wedderburn
(London: George Allen, 1907)

22. Sinclair, W., illus. Payne, Jill, The Life of the Honey-bee (Loughborough: Ladybird Books, 1969) 

23. Virgil, The Georgics of Virgil, tr. Lewis, C. Day (London: Jonathan Cape, 1957) 

24. Walker, Penelope, ‘Bee Boles in Kent’, Arch├Žologia Cantiana, Vol. CVI (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1988)

flowers and bees


timing is every-



bees need flowers

   for nourishment 

flowers need bees

   for reproduction

with thanks to Luke Allan, Damon Waldock, Clare Lilley, 

Helen Pheby, Rachel Bollen

photographs by Jonty Wilde, courtesy of YSP


The Bee Library @ YSP.co.uk

Other projects by Alec Finlay at YSP: 
Home to a King (3)

Rebecca Chesney's bee project at YSP

The bee bole home page