You Should Probably Start Keeping Live Bees as Artwork

Dustin Betz, the founder of startup GreenTowers, and one of the company's BEEcosystem observation hives. GreenTowers
Dustin Betz, the founder of startup GreenTowers, and one of the company's BEEcosystem observation hives. GreenTowers


Imagine a quiet evening at home, where the antics of your pets spark a conversation with your friends. Except these pets aren't ordinary companions, they're... bees? And you've stuck a swarm of them on the living room wall in the form of an "observation hive" that's as much art as it is science.

Like many observation hives, this hive is equipped with a tube that allows bees to pass back and forth between the hive and the outside world. The sides of the beehive are covered in glass, offering a window into their busy little world.

Bees are important, and the addition of an observation hive to your eclectic decor has arguably more environmental value than the M.C. Escher print it replaced. Bees pollinate about 80 percent of the flowering crops in the U.S., from which at least one-third of America's food comes.

In 2006, however, entire colonies of bees began dying in large numbers. Researchers call the phenomenon colony collapse disorder (CCD), and believe it's caused by a combination of factors, including exposure to pesticides, pathogens and environmental stresses.

Enter the bee colony as art.

"It's definitely a big crowd pleaser," says Dustin Betz, who installed an observation hive in the boarding home he shares with 20 other people. "We get a lot of house visitors and it's a really easy way to spark conversation about the ecological agricultural role of honeybees. Bees are they're disappearing. Everyone should care about this."

Betz is the founder of GreenTowers, a State College, Pennsylvania-based startup focused on urban agricultural design, including observation beehives. Betz came up with the idea while attending Penn State University and working at a honeybee research lab.

"I got some exposure to beekeeping in an academic setting and wanted to bring beekeeping into my startup company," he says. "I got some seed funding to explore building a reimagined honeybee observation hive."

The hive, called a BEEcosystem, is an indoor and outdoor wall-mounted hexagon with a clear side for viewing and a tube that allows the bees at-will access to the hive and outdoor pollen sources. A starter kit comes with one hexagon, and additional hexagons can be added to expand the hive and make the best use of that open wall begging for living artwork.

There are other iterations of observation hives on the market, as well as urban beekeeping kits like the Flow Hive — a backyard beehive designed to distill honey from a tap built right into the hive. Incidentally, the Flow Hive's April 2015 Indiegogo campaign raised more than $12 million.  

The BEEcosystem is one of the few, counters Betz, that is modularly expandable. "You can make it taller, increase the available space for bees — the same key feature of most beehives. A larger colony of bees is a stronger colony," he says.

David Skrzypek, a member of the master beekeeping program at Oregon State University, sees a definite potential for beehives that increase awareness, but also some potential problems. "Bees generally have one nest, not many apartment units," he says.

To start a hive observation installation, adds Betz, you'll need more than the hardware. You'll need bees, too. About 10,000 of them, including one queen bee. Bees are typically purchased online from other beekeepers or, in some cases, attracted through the use of bee hormones.

"It's not meant to be a piece of living art that is hands off," says Betz. "Customers would need to consider themselves bee stewards. It's a way to get involved; something everybody can do with their own small space. We want to reconnect people with honeybees because they are so important to our food system."