Artists Educate on Bees, Bats, and the Importance
of Local Ecosystems to Food Sovereignty
By Robin Babb
In the past several years, honeybees have justifiably received a lot of press as a threatened species and a cornerstone of our food system that’s crucial to the viable future of agriculture in the US. But what often goes unmentioned in these “save the bees” campaigns is that the honeybees most of us are used to seeing, the ones now largely responsible for crop pollination, are a European import.
The presence of Apis mellifera, or European honeybees, in North America is a product of colonization. According to the USDA Forest Service publication, Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees, “Most people do not realize that there were no honeybees in [the United States] before European settlers brought hives from Europe. These resourceful animals promptly managed to escape from domestication.” The ramifications of this escape are incalculably vast: honeybees have become a huge part of every ecosystem in North America, supplanting many native bee species in the process. “With our help, honeybees live as far north as Alaska (though they have to be mailed there and reintroduced every spring) and south across the tropics as well,” reports Daniel Rubinoff in Scientific American. “It’s a wildly adaptable species: willing and able to thrive on, and harvest nectar from, almost anything that blooms, everywhere from the deserts around Palm Springs, to the Chesapeake wetlands to the middle of our biggest cities.” We’ve used this adaptability to our advantage by creating an entire industry around breeding and shipping these bees all over the continent to serve farmers who, with the dwindling native pollinator populations, would be up a creek without them.
But this one species is not cut out for the job of many. The approximately four thousand species of bees native to North America have each evolved to specialize in pollinating specific plants native to their region, such as the sunflower leafcutting bee (Megachile fortis), who exclusively pollinates sunflowers. The relationship between pollinator and plant is forged through centuries of coevolution, and European honeybees evolved to pollinate—you guessed it—European crops. Modern North American agriculture has largely adapted to fit their preferences, at the exclusion of native plants that grow more easily and are better fare for native pollinators.
Native pollinators, as a whole, are an often overlooked cornerstone of food sovereignty. If you want to plant the crops your ancestors planted, you’re going to need the pollinators they had back then, too. But native pollinator species are being threatened by habitat destruction, pesticide use, and encroachment by the highly adaptable honey bee. Nationwide, one in three wild native bee species is at risk of extinction, according to a study from the Center for Biological Diversity. And bees are only one part of the equation.
In New Mexico, where food sovereignty is an increasingly important facet of local culture and politics, turning a spotlight on native pollinators and their role in the regional foodshed is past due. Thankfully, some artists and conservationists are stepping up to shine that light.
Ana MacArthur and Pollinator Concentrator
Native pollinators are the focus of Ana MacArthur’s latest artwork, Pollinator Concentrator. The Santa Fe-based artist created the installation at the Taos Land Trust to both feature and attract pollinators indigenous to the Taos Valley, along with a pollinator garden planted nearby.
To see the artwork, you’ve got to visit the Taos Land Trust at Rio Fernando Park and walk out from the visitor’s center about a quarter mile, cutting through fields planted in rye and wheat during the spring. You won’t see it until you’re right on it. The parabolic dish is laid into the land like a bowl, lined all around with blue hexagonal tiles featuring images of native pollinator species that fade from a deep cobalt in the center to a pale robin’s egg blue at the edges. When I visited the Land Trust in December, half of the dish was covered in snow and the pollinator garden was dead for the winter. The splash of color in the cold ground looked like a reminder that things would bloom here again, and soon.
The tiles depict seven different native (and one non-native) pollinator species, from the tarantula wasp to the swallowtail butterfly. Macarthur chose a simple, non-species-specific image of a bat for one tile, and the long, curled tongue of the sphinx moth for another. The pollinator garden that curves around half the dish in a crescent contains flowering plants that attract native pollinators, such as firewheel, Rocky Mountain bee plant, and prairie sunflowers.
In addition to the pollinator garden, the artwork has another way of attracting native pollinators. MacArthur installed a dim UV light around the lip of the dish, which is hooked up to a “bat detector” located nearby. This detector, a homemade system of arduinos and ultrasonic sensors, will flip on the light when bats are detected nearby. The light attracts some of the bats’ primary prey insects, and thus, ideally, the bats themselves. This summer, the Land Trust plans on hosting several nighttime events for the public to come see the bats in action and learn about the biological diversity they support regionally.
Before working on this project, MacArthur says she didn’t realize the importance of bats as pollinators in New Mexico. Bats don’t collect pollen for food like bees do, but several species eat nectar—and frequently end up inadvertently carrying pollen from flower to flower in the process. During her research, MacArthur learned that 14 different species of bat frequent the Taos Land Trust, including the Mexican long-tongued bat, which pollinates agave and several kinds of cacti.
Though she’d researched butterfly species before on a separate project, MacArthur says she had never focused explicitly on pollinators. But, as she told me, her “artistic practice involves a lot of research,” and tackling this project was another opportunity for her to make artwork that heralded something that usually went under the radar. “I’ve always been interested in the invisible,” she told me, referring to her many years of working with lightwaves as her medium of choice. Working with the small, at-risk species that are commonly skipped over in conservation dialogues seemed like a good fit in her practice.
Education is another common part of MacArthur’s art practice. In the research and design period of the Pollinator Concentrator project she conducted educational workshops with students from Taos Integrated School for the Arts, teaching them research skills and how to share their findings with their peers. The students learned about their regional ecosystem in the process, and made preliminary designs of the pollinator tiles. MacArthur hopes that they feel a sense of pride and ownership in the resulting artwork, and that they visit the Land Trust and the pollinator garden often to see the real-life pollinators they learned so much about.
The BioSTEAM project at Rio Fernando Park teaches local students about their regional foodshed and the interconnections as a crucial part of ensuring the health of that ecosystem. In this interest, Agnes has created an intercultural team including Taos Pueblo Education Center with Henrietta Gomez and Sheryl Romero from Red Willow Farm. Together they are developing a curriculum that combines traditional ecological knowledge of their region with modern tech and new scientific discoveries, ensuring that students remain interested and can carry that knowledge with them as future stewards of the land.
“The next unit that I’ll be bringing to the BioSTEAM lab is on genetic engineering and DNA, and understanding what the whole CRISPR [gene editing technology] movement is about… These are things that are real, they’re going to be coming to our everyday life, so for the kids to understand it and to make ethical decisions is important. How do we use this technology in a way that’s for good, and for the community?”
Agnes Chavez and BioSTEAM Lab
Agnes Chaves, the founder of the BioSteam project and an artist herself, had an artwork that also related to species preservation in New Mexico at 516 Art’s recent exhibition Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande. For BIOTA, a research-based installation piece that Chavez worked on with the help of the Museum of Southwestern Biology and a team of advisers, she collected samples of water from the Rio Fernando and analyzed the biodiversity loss of algae present in the river through DNA sequencing. The resulting installation at the 516 gallery included a custom-made transparent vessel containing some of those living algae samples, along with a constantly scrolling projected feed of the hundreds of microbial species present in the Rio Fernando, along with their respective abundance levels. This use of research and data in installation art is a hallmark of Chavez’s work, who, similarly to MacArthur, is as concerned with the process of the work as its result.
With this in mind it’s not surprising that Chavez, also concerned with the artistic capabilities of rendering visible what is typically invisible, gravitated towards MacArthur. When Chavez first began outlining the project, she knew that she wanted to use art and tech to address environmental education, and MacArthur’s work seemed like a fitting first embodiment of this idea. In the coming years, the BioSTEAM Lab will continue to solicit artists to “design a site specific or some other kind of art installation for the land” that involve the Taos community in their research and construction. With this collaboration and interdisciplinary approach, the BioSTEAM folks hope to give younger generations a new set of tools for local ecological conservation work.
*Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the vital involvement of the Taos Pueblo community in the building of the BioSTEAM curriculum. Edible regrets any errors in the original print version.