A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Engaging the Hivemind: Hudson Valley Bee Habitat

Hudson Valley Current Member Profile

As you probably already know, bees are key. In a very real sense, they are more important to the survival of life on earth—not just human life, either, but all life—than any other critter. The love match between bees and flowering plants, at least 100 million years old, has played a huge part in building and sustaining biodiversity. Three-fourths of the food crops we rely on to survive are affected by pollination. If the bees go, we all go down with them.

Yet humans persist in assuming that these miraculous little creatures will take whatever we dish out in terms of pesticides, habitat destruction, and enslavement. (Commercial beekeepers ship billions of honeybees around the country to fertilize monoculture crops. “You’d think there would be an easier way to make an almond but no,” reporter Robert Smith of NPR’s “Planet Money” team observed in a 2017 story for “All Things Considered”.)

Pollinators help to create crops that produce somewhere between $235 billion and $577 billion worth of food every year. You’d think humans would have a bit more respect, given that there is absolutely nothing we can do that will take their place in the process. Well, some of us do…and at Hudson Valley Bee Habitat (HVBH), pollinators are treated as the royalty that they are. 

The HVBH was created in 2016, a collaboration between three bee-keeping, bee-loving artists and educators on a mission to “utilize our expertise as artists, designers, and mindful educators to pollinate public engagement with bees, the environment, and each other in order to help both humans and bees thrive.” 

Elena Sniezek is an artist, educator, and beekeeper with over twenty years experience as a teaching artist (pre-K to college) in Chicago, Arizona, and New York. Emily Puthoff is a sculptor, bee habitat designer, art educator for over twenty years, and beekeeper who’s been a 2016-2017 National Arts Strategies Creative Community Fellow, 2017-2018 Good Work Institute Fellow and a 2017-2018 Sustainability Faculty Fellow at SUNY New Paltz, where she heads the Sculpture Program. Jennifer Woodin is an artist, bee habitat designer, art educator, beekeeper, and meditation teacher.

On the Kingston Greenline

Together, the three have developed a bee project unlike any other. Although they’re all honey beekeepers, the Habitat’s stewardship goes beyond caring for the honey bee—a human favorite for millenia—and into the realm of the solitary bees. There are actually 2,500 distinct species of bees in the US alone, and only 10 percent of the bee population is made up of our familiar hive-minded honey and bumblebees. 

Mason, leaf cutter, carpenter, digger, and sweat bees are some of the solitary species that are equally able pollinators without establishing colonies and serving a reigning queen, honey bee style. (Every solitary female bee is an egg-laying queen in her own right, and all of them are workers.) Lacking hives, they nest in holes, either found or created in earth or wood. Lacking honey, which is big business to humans, they don’t inspire the level of admiration and attention from the average person that the honey makers do.

Yet solitary bees, important and effective pollinators, are just as vulnerable to the factors that threaten bee survival. Seven species of solitary bees were added to the endangered species list last year. And at Hudson Valley Bee Habitat, the solitaries are shown the love and protection they deserve: The collective has collaborated with the University of Hartford’s Nomad/9 MFA program and with the City of Kingston’s Beautifying and Restoring Kingston Teen crew at the YMCA Farm Project on building large-scale bee habitats. 

The Kingston Greenline, the city’s urban rail trail, is the home of the Kingston Bee-Line, a series of sculptures and gardens providing habitat for solitary bees along the trail. “Public art for people and pollinators,” as the HVBH folks put it.

Another large habitat, rich in cultural significance, is an arbor that serves as a threshold into the Three Sisters Garden at the Native American Seed Sanctuary, located at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. The arbor’s design, inspired by Akwesasne Leader Mary Arquette, takes the form of the Hiawatha Belt, symbolic of the five nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy living peacefully together. Diverse species of solitary bees nest happily in its logs, sunflower stalks and phragmite stems, emerging to pollinate the Native American varieties of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers being grown there.

Arbor Construction

The artists are also developing and testing prototypes of 3D printed plastic and ceramic bee habitats that they plan to offer for sale, giving the public the opportunity to support the bees in two ways at once by installing clean, safe habitat space for egg-laying and helping to fund still more pollinator education and programming.

With the onset of the pandemic and lockdown, Puthoff, Sniezek, and Woodin had to temporarily suspend some public programming at a time when their momentum was absolutely swarming: In early March, it was announced that Hudson Valley Bee Habitat had been awarded a $100,000 Environmental Justice Community Impact Grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for its Conserving Pollinators through Community Engagement project, a planned collaboration with the Kingston YMCA Farm Project, Department of Regional Art Workers and KaN Landscape Design that would engage Kingston teenagers in co-designing and co-creating a pollinator habitat sculpture and garden at a site in downtown Kingston. 

And in early April, Catskill Mountainkeeper released Save the Pollinators, an eight-minute short film that featured Hudson Valley Bee Habitat alongside some of their fellow experts. The film, a week after its release, had already inspired Mountainkeeper supporters Susan and John Short to create their own pollinator habitat. Among other awards, the film won the Gold Award for Best Social Issue Film in the Independent Shorts Awards and has been selected for numerous festivals; you can watch it on any of Mountainkeeper’s social media pages.

For the moment, with gatherings on pause, the habitat crafters are busy as—well, you know—both brainstorming next steps with their partners. They’ve gathered a sweet array of pandemic assistance resources for artists on the HVBH website, hvbeehabitat.org, where you can also learn what you need to know to offer lodgings to solitary bees in your own backyard —a perfect, hopeful May project for this period of solitary solidarity.

And they’ve been using Currents to shop in the Digital Resilience Marketplace, being aware that “supporting a local currency keeps money circulating locally, creating a more vibrant and stronger community,” After all, it’s all about a happy, healthy hive.