Thursday, June 7, 2018

Redbud and the Bees

Redbud and the Bees, 18" x 24", linocut with collaged washi papers by Ele Willoughby, 2018
Proof of my Eastern Carpenter Bee linocut and block
I've been working on a new artwork about urban wildlife. Creature Conserve is a non-profit outreach organization which brings artists and scientists together to "foster sustained and informed support for animal conservation," and they posted a call for artists for their Urban Wildlife: Learning to Co-exist exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) at the end of July and through August. Because of my on-going work on native bees, the first thing I thought about were bees in the city. The exhibit aims to get artists to collaborate with scientists and use their artworks to explore the biology and ecology of species and the way they interact with humans. Specifically, artists are invited to explore themes of how ecosystems change in time and space, how wildlife and humans may displace each other homes, the visibility or invisibility of wildlife in the city, the rhythms of animal life and their health. I'm well aware of how our native bees have been displaced and their ranges have changed through time, and also how they can be invisible to people in the city, who often are only aware of the existence of honeybees and maybe bumblebees, so I thought they would be an apt choice.

My redbud linocuts on various pink washi papers
I remembered the urbanredbud citizen science project here in Toronto. Local U of T doctoral candidate Charlotte de Keyzer is working with the public to gather data on flowering times of Eastern redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) and their pollinators using bee nest boxes and traps. She and her collaborators are particularly interested in how climate change and urbanization effect these trees and specifically the timing of their emergence and peak activity. Eastern redbud were not really known in Toronto even 30 years ago, but between climate change and its growing popularity as an ornamental landscape tree, they have became fairly common in the city and important for urban bee diversity. Local wild bees are attracted to this early flowering tree covered in pink flowers, and some also use its leaves in building their nests. Since the project addresses changes in the environment over time because of climate change and urbanization, and since it seeks to engage the public, I thought it might be a good fit and that Charlotte de Keyzer might be open to collaborating with me, and indeed she was! I asked her some questions about which bees they observe in their traps, hoping to connect this to my existing collection of native bee lino blocks, and told her about the aims and themes of the exhibit. It turns out that redbud trees are indeed popular with some of my own favourite (and previously depicted) native bees. Their early results show that amongst the most common bee visitors in Toronto foraging on redbuds are Osmia lignaria (blue orchard bee), Colletes inaequalis (polyester bee), and Xylocopa virginica (eastern carpenter bee). Leafcutters also use the leaves to build nests (though they do not yet have information on which species of leafcutter are actually doing the cutting). In my artwork I show flowering redbud branches, the small blue O. lignaria, a Megachile relativa leafeater bee (I took the liberty of simply choosing this local bee) at the top along with a telltale round hole in a leaf, and the X. virginica in the middle.

It was Charlotte's suggestion that I focus on the eastern carpenter bee. Like the redbuds themselves, the eastern carpenter bee is at the northernmost end of its range, which is advancing northward with climate change and aided by urbanization (because cities are warmer due to the urban heat island effect, which likely helps them survive our winters). In fact, since people are planting redbud trees in their gardens, we're inadvertently aiding migration of both tree and bee. She points out that "redbuds are now starting to naturalize in ravines and woodlots across southern Ontario." What brings the X. virginica into conflict with its human neighbours is that female carpenter bees of course, build nests by boring holes into untreated wood structures, including outdoor furniture and buildings. Thus these bees are often considered pests by home owners and we are still working on 'learning to co-exist.' To emphasis this conflict, I printed weathered wood with round holes like thoses bored by eastern carpenter bees.

If you live in Toronto and own or know of a nearby redbud tree, you too can take part in the urbanredbud citizen science project. Check it out here.

I got a lot of positive feedback on my linocut of the redbud before I added the bees, so I think I will also make a simpler piece of the tree branches alone. 

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