AnneMarie Maes

Thoughts and Talks

February 2010 — December 2012

I am a media-artist and beekeeper. I study the tight interaction and coevolution between city honeybees and urban ecosystems.

In the open air lab on the rooftop of my studio I have been creating experimental set-ups using sustainable beehives that are then augmented with sensors and sensory processing algorithms to analyse the state of the colonies, the quality of pollen and propolis and the behavior of the bees. The data of these Intelligent

Beehives is made available online.

My fieldnotes provide an ongoing source of inspiration for artworks and presentations. The bodies of these fascinating insects look and function as perfect instruments, they explore their environment with their refined sensory organs and pass on information using idiosyncratic techniques for communication and they organize their complex societies in a truly democratic way. My Bee Laboratory should be seen as an open framework that helps to bring out a range of issues. It is a long-term project on the edge of art, science and technology.

Because bee populations function and evolve in accordance with the human activities developing around them, I have set out several urban test fields in the Brussels’ Canal Zone. This area features diverse activities: from community gardening and urban agriculture to accidental nature, interspersed between industrial buildings, office zones and living areas. The test sites are connected by the flight routes and foraging activities of the bees. The honeybees reflect the health of their surrounding ecosystem and the cumulative effects of different pollutants. I use them as bio-indicators to make citizens aware of the increasingly negative effects of our life styles and methods of industrial production. The survival of the colonies depends on the flowers we plant and on the garbage and pollution we produce – and the compromised state of the bees’ foraging areas is quite worrisome.


The honeybee colonies forage in a radius of 3 kilometers around their beehive. They fly on their own airborne roads back and forth from their collecting jobs and bring a sense of rural to the urban environment. I analyse the pollen that the bees bring back from their foraging trips, and compare it with existing scientific databases. With this information I can determine and map the melliferous plants in the green corridors and monitor the evolution of the plant diversity. Complex systems analysis and machine learning techniques can detect patterns to help with the determination. Meteorological circumstances influence the bees’ behaviour. A windy day makes the hive nervous, an upcoming thunderstorm makes the bees’ dances wilder. Contact microphones amplify all action from the hive’s frames. We can listen to the hustle and bustle inside the nest. What if a rhythm-analysis of the bees could provide for a musical score? Would it be cyclical? Wave-like, marked by the rising and falling activity. Expanding, absorbing and traversing, only to fade away in the heat of the late afternoon light?

March 2012 — April 2013

Social insects are a crucial element in our ecosystem. The study and monitoring of honeybees allow me to experiment with couplings between biology, nature and technology.

My preoccupations with honeybees come partly from a fascination with these amazing insects: bees exhibit very original solutions to the challenges that social insects face, e.g. on the level of communication and collective decision making and their remarkable collective behavior provides inspiration and metaphors for the functioning of human society.

From the start, I wanted to set up a real collaboration with the bees. For this reason I developed the Transparent Beehive project (2010-2013). The project allowed me to study the tight interaction between city honeybees and urban ecosystems, using artistic research practices and collaboration with scientists.

The Transparent Beehive is a living sculpture in the form of an observation beehive made from plexiglass, wood, aluminium and steel. It is part of a series of ecological instrumented beehives. Inside is a living bee colony that has access to the outside world through a glass  pipe. The Transparent Beehive was installed for the first time on a Brussels rooftop connected to my urban garden laboratory and has since been shown in various art contexts.

The beehive is internally structured like a book, inspired by a design from 1788 by the Swiss entomologist Francis Huber. Each page consists of a wooden frame covered by an aluminium casing. Every frame is enhanced with microphones which pick up the vibrations and sounds of the hive. The real-time rendered sounds help me to track the development of the bee colony. The final -slow artoutput creates a 3D sound-scan of life in the hive. Cameras inside the hive monitor the growth of the wax structures and the activity of bees. Additional sensors measure temperature, humidity, and other climatological data. This data is treated by sensory processing, pattern recognition and AI algorithms and visualized using sophisticated computer graphics  algorithms in order to make the state of the colony tangible.

From the Transparent Beehive project, I especially like the metaphor of ‘reading the development of a colony by browsing through a book.’ The close reading with a wide array of microphones, cameras and sensors offered me the possibility to examine the colony as a community. Storing the data over a 12 month period provided very detailed observations and it allowed me to discover and follow long-term trends in the complex relations between the colony and its urban environment. My research was documented in various media, and the generated data was used as a point of departure in a series of artworks on bees’ behaviour patterns over sustained periods of time.

Another aspect of the Transparent Beehive was to challenge how the relation between nature and technology is understood, and to work towards establishing new connections between the natural and the technological paradigms. The work was a balancing act between artistic and scientific lines of inquiry.

February 2012  — October 2014

I want to populate cities with a network of intelligent Guerilla Beehives. These beehives should offer a ‘natural’ shelter to swarming bee colonies – rather than force them into man-made square boxes. The colonies should be able to thrive without the help of a beekeeper. The main target of my Guerilla Beehives is pollination and thus preservation and remediation of biodiversity.

I imagine a world where biological fabrication replaces traditional manufacturing and thus where new sustainable beehives can be generated simply by growing them. The design of such beehives will be inspired by art forms from nature. I am searching the scientific literature to find the requirements for an ideal honeybee nest and I start creating physical prototypes using smart, organic and biological materials. During a visit to Silicon Valley, I collected lots of eucalyptus seedpods in the park surrounding Stanford University. The seedpods are ± 25mm tall, and their rimmed morphology inspired me to start working on the shell of my first prototype. For my research I use an artistic explorative method to investigate whether biomaterials from the hive such as wax, propolis, honey, exoskeletons or collaborations with other microorganisms can contribute to radical new ideas for future ‘intelligent’ beehives.

My Guerilla Beehives are intended to function completely independently. I want to equip them with biodegradable sensors that make distant, non-intrusive monitoring possible. The hives therefore do not need to be opened and bees do not need to be disturbed when I monitor the colony. The audio- and visual data can be aggregated, processed and shared in real time over the internet.

Moreover I believe that some of the the sensors can be made of living technology. Biodegradable sensors will be powered by solar energy, honey batteries or microbial fuel cells and I am collaborating with scientists to make this possible. The whole system is set up as a fully organic project: cradle to cradle. If the bees decide to leave the hive in search for another home, the Guerilla Beehive (with its integrated electronics) will biodegrade and compost completely

October 2014 —February 2015

The Invisible Garden: Naturalistic Observations and Hidden Memories (2014-2015) is an immersive art installation, an enclosed habitat similar to the domed cities of science fiction narratives. The work is the culmination of over a decade of research. I was asked to realize a remake of my Hortus Experimentalis rooftop garden in central Brussels for the Green Light District exhibition at the former Buda textile factory in Kortrijk. The site-specific, large-scale installation focuses conceptually on artificial environments and on reversing the relation between nature and art.

My artistic practice is concerned with making invisible structures and patterns visible, revealing the unexpected magnificence that lies hidden beneath the surface of our everyday experience in nature.

The Invisible Garden is a construction in the process of transformation. I want to reveal the fleeting structures that tend to escape general notice, visualize the different connections that can be established between the elements of an ecosystem.

With The Invisible Garden I draw attention to the current state of our environment, the use of green spaces in our cities, and I provoke a dialogue about the different elements that make up the physical reality and speculations about the future of our urban landscape.

The Invisible Garden covered an entire 200m2 room on the first floor of the former textile factory. The installation consisted of a naturalistic garden in a windowless room, lit by uv-lights, divided into four distinct botanical zones, and with layering according to the principles of permaculture. Different plant species were carefully selected for cohabitation with respect to their edible and melliferous qualities, creating a subtle ecosystem favorable to humans and honeybees, while approximating as closely as possible the complex ecological web we find in natural environments.

With the Invisible Garden I framed Nature in a carefully composed construct: indoors, in a room with a rather low ceiling, without windows or ventilation, and with artificial light. The complex sensory and regulatory systems of the plants responded to the slightly-changing conditions of the building. A plant does not measure the length of the day, but it measures the length of the continuous periods of darkness. The phytochrome, the light activating sensor in plants, assures the execution of this task. A timer was scheduled to watch over the daily light exposure. I had to research about optimal light wavelengths (red/blue), ideal color range (warm/cold, yellow/blue), the prefered distance of the lightsource from the plants (intensity, full sun, half sun/shadow simulations) and an even distribution of light over the entire room.

A range of different sensors installed throughout the four zones collected climatological data on the evolution of the garden. This data was then processed and uploaded to the web in real time. The sensors kept track of the circadian rhythm of the plants. These 24-hour rhythms are related to the local environment by external cues. Light is one of the cues by which the plants synchronize their internal clocks to their environment. Plant behaviors subject to rhythms include, among others, leaf movement, growth and germination.

Visitors wandered through the four zones of the garden. The Mediterranean Section with olive trees and grasses, the Edible Forest Garden with bee-friendly trees, shrubs and ground covers, the Vegetable Garden with perennial and annual plants and the Herb Garden with medicinal plants. A number of artworks were integrated in the garden design. A series of audio-visual poems displayed on lcd-screens served as hidden memories, as referred to in the full title of the work ‘The Invisible Garden: Naturalistic Observations and Hidden Memories’.These audiovisual memories unveil structures created by nature, structures that are often not visible unless you look at them with an artistic eye and through the technological tools of modern science.

The Invisible Garden opened-up a set of different relations to the visitors. Relations between animals and plants; between plants and technology; between ecology and public life. The artificial garden construct raised questions on the technical, social and political dimensions of green spaces. The visitors wandering around in this green haven, were confronted to consider issues on food security, the oligopoly of seed corporations, the agriculture industry and its effect on the environment and on our society at large.

The Mediterranean Garden with its dark palette of waving grasses, drew the visitors into the dimmed room. Once deeper inside the exhibition space, technical setups became visible, and a colder, more exact laboratory atmosphere emerged. Every plant was tagged with a QR-code and with the name of its donor. Scanning the QR-tag with a mobile device connected the visitor to The OpenGreens database where the evolution of The Invisible Garden -and every plant it contained- could be tracked in detailed field notes and images. I was particularly interested in how the life of an organism – be it a plant or an animal born in this indoor garden – fits in with the other organisms. I observed everything that went on in this constructed ecosystem, how species dealt with their natural enemies. I studied the food web – the network of feeding relationships, of eating and being eaten – between the plants and the insects. I studied the decomposition of the dead leaves by fungi and bacteria. I took pictures to compare the different stages of evolution, and samples to study under my microscopes. One of my aims with this installation was to make visitors look at the world differently.

March — June 2016

As a follow up to my former fieldwork with several observation beehive installations, I recently founded the Laboratory for Form and Matter (2015) to study raw materials collected by the bees. Several of m experiments on form and matter have been brought together under the label The Raw and the Cooked. Here I study the natural processes by which nature operates and how I can use these processes to create my own organic materials. I experiment with a range of biological components and I measure their usability for art installations and design applications, as -amongst others- the Guerilla Beehive.

I test the public’s knowledge of visual perception and smells of a range of materials. I question what is natural and what is not, what is fake or what is real. I set up cycles of material interactions that form a rhythm so that arts meets nature.

I experiment with plant cellulose and with microbial cellulose to create biofabrics. Biofabrics are degradable materials whose components are derived from renewable raw supplies. These materials are composed of three basic parts: biopolymers that are produced by living organisms (e.g. agar agar, plant cellulose, gelatin, chitin, algae …), plasticizers and water. Additives give the plastics other properties as color or durability. I played with following additives: plant fibers, ground coffee, natural dyes from blackberries and beetroot, ground eggshells, spelt husks, pollen, essential oils and wax. Plant cellulose is a very important biopolymer for the creation of these new materials, because it is the most abundant organic compound on earth. An alternative is the microbial cellulose This is a form of cellulose that is produced by a symbiotic community of bacteria (the Acetobacter xylinus) and yeast cells.

The outer skin of my Guerilla Beehive prototype is made of a biofabric grown with plant cellulose: Psyllium ovata husks mixed with glycerine. This finishing looks very organic. In the fab lab, I laminated this plant-skin over the sculpted body of the beehive prototype. The result of this experiment got the nickname ‘the Brain’.

While creating biofabrics in my lab, a narrative emerged from the samples and objects made out of this organic material. Some of the objects I clad with the fabric were brought from former travels in Asia and Africa, others were made in my studio.

There are the stories of Navdanya (the large Indian drumsticks) or The Pharaoh’s Kitchen (the Egyptian Carob tree seedpods) – on which I worked with bioplastics made from plants and pollen. There is Outfit for a Medicine Man and The Emperor’s New Clothes – entirely grown from bacterial cellulose with addition of pearl-like plant husks. Or The Strange Attraction of Mold and Memory Shape – which are abstract paintings made with organic materials.

Other objects were chosen for their pure geometrical forms, such as the assembled Truncated Octahedrons Prime Witness, a combination of wax molds and 3D printed forms.

The collection of these objects radiates a kind of strangeness and has a certain mythological factor. Therefore I gave this experimental collection the title The Raw and The Cooked.

Many facets of the installation The Raw and The Cooked explore the boundaries between the born and the made, the animate and the inanimate, the medium and the form.

The most obvious theme in play is the age-old tension between the natural and the artificial, between thebiological, the ecological and the technological. The play between nature and culture also presents itself in tensions between form and medium that underlie many of the works, tensions that underwrite the transformations and transmutations which are both seen and unseen. Transformations, for example, of coffee and fungus into cloth or skin-like membranes,transformations of malleable wax into rigid polyhedral forms. The play with traditionally oppositional categories is also apparent in the use of organic media such as gelatin and wax to produce forms found in nature (but not necessarily found in these particular media), or the use of technological means to capture the spectacular geometry of the organic – geometries rarely visible to the human eye.

Many of the objects and works can be seen as forms and systemic structures that range from the micro to the macro, from the geometric perfection of the invisible pollen grain, to the structures of communities and populations (bees, humans). In many cases, these forms and structures become fully visible, and therefore fully present, only with the aid of prosthetic devices such as electron microscopes.

Where exactly do the boundaries between nature and culture, the found and the made, between form and color, sound and vision, science and art, the organic and inorganic, or even the animate and inanimate lie?

[April —May 2016]

This is the end of the anthropocene.
We imagine an ecosystem where all actors collaborate to keep up the resilience of the system. As artists, beekeepers, makers and thinkers, we collaborate with animals, plants, insects and bacteria. We co-design Intelligent Guerilla Beehives: supportive shelters for bee swarms. In return, the bees provide us with information on the ecosystem that is hosting the Guerilla Beehive. Driven by the intelligence, complexity and selforganisation of the Super Organism -the bee swarm- we discuss and explore in a democratic way. This is not a study of-, but a development together with ‘the other organism’. This collaboration should lead to a more diverse and thus more resilient system, post human and post anthropocentrism. Animal politics are taken into account. We go for an embodied experience, non-linear, immanent and interacting with the non-human other.

My future research looks into the sustainable fabrication of smart materials for growing Intelligent Guerilla Beehives. I will use biomimesis as a starting point for incubating ecological thinking on matter and form. My goal is to grow the Intelligent Guerilla Beehives from scratch, with living materials – as nature does – without producing any waste or harmful byproducts. My research into manufacturing with nature starts at experimenting with fabrics grown from plant cellulose and from bacterial cellulose, bringing the ‘in vivo’ into the lab. Later, I will combine the smart skin and the intelligent form with living technology. The whole object will behave as a bio-digital living system. Material and technology will become one entity – the living matter IS the technology. The Guerilla Beehive is a speculative research project that radically combines matter, form and technology.

The Guerilla Beehive is also a functional artwork, a shelter to sustain the endangered Apis mellifera species. It is not a beehive for honey production, but it aims to support the bee colonies as pollinators and guardians of biodiversity. The biomimetic-inspired design -inspired by a pollen grain of the Fragaria vesca, the wild strawberry- is shaped upon the needs of the bees: the nest-space has the the ideal inner volume for a developing colony. I call it ‘the Brain’. The outer shell is made with organic materials and has camouflage qualities with useful biomimetic properties in respect to temperature fluctuation, humidity and ventilation. The biotextile skin is layered with a 3D printed voronoi-design in flexible bioplastic, as a support on which to add a network of small thermistors . There is a solar panel for energy provisioning, a camera for monitoring the activity of the bees and internal sensors and telecommunication equipment for uploading data. The hive is mobile and easily deployable at different spots in public space: it can be attached to the wall of a building or secured on the branch of a tree, or it can even find a place as a stand-alone sculpture on the terrace of a city apartment. Once the colony decides to leave the hive forever, the object will decompose completely.

Because bees are biomarkers due to their close relationship to their surroundings, the Guerilla Beehive is at the same time usable as a sensing device for monitoring the status of the environment by observing the behaviour of the colony.

The Guerilla Beehive project involves a strong engagement with the biological and computing sciences as well as with DIY technologies and digital fabrication. Seen from the artistic side, the object has a high tactile potential. Much is about touch and feel. The focus on organic materials is evident: the surface (or the skin) of the beehive is a place of encounter for the bees. Here, materials collected by the bees (nectar, propolis) and patterns created by the bees (the bees’ dance) change into meaning. Shape and materials offer an entry point to explore the project. But the Guerilla Beehive also collects data measured by a mesh network of biosensors hidden between the inner and the outer shell of the beehive. The entrance is monitored by a camera and the processed images are sent via bluetooth to a monitor. The camera is powered by a Raspberry Pi which is hosted at the other side of the beehive, in a small 3Dprinted pocket. A solar panel on top of the beehive powers the sensors. Visualisations of this data information help to explain the processes that occur in the behaviour of the bee colony.

By creating these imaginative and poetic sculptures and structures, I explore with the Guerilla Beehive project the interaction between nature and culture through the lens of art, material science and biology.


“They are everywhere and they can be perceived as quite the alien intelligence; six-legged, with their numerous eyes, capacities of motion and sensation so different from our own. No wonder science fiction has been inspired by insects. But also other fields, like robotics as well as network design. Insects are more than creepy-crawly bugs; they are also a central reference point of so much of network culture, from talk of hive minds and distributed networks to algorithms that function like ant colonies; some refer to our cognitive capitalist practices as “pollen society”.”

(Jussi Parikka, Insect Media: an Archaeology of Animals and Technology)


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