18 May 2016

A taste of honey: bees at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Has the buzz about The Hive got you interested in bees? Then why not take a look at some of the bee-related materials in Kew’s library, illustrations and archives collections?

By Melissa Candy , Philippa Lewis and Francesca Railton

The Hive interior - a larger-than-life recreation of a real beehive at Kew

Exhibition of bee-related materials

As we finish our year as graduate trainees at Kew, one of our final tasks has been to curate an exhibition for the Reading Room to coincide with the installation of The Hive at Kew. This, of course, is related to all things bees, and includes library, art and archive items relating to; the anatomy of bees, the relationship between bees and the plants they pollinate, and the unique history of bees at Kew.

Below are some of the highlights of the display.

The flight of the honey bee

Included in our display is a fascinating book: Form and function in the honey bee, which is the legacy of the zoologist Dr Lesley Goodman’s lifetime’s work studying the physiology and anatomy of invertebrates, in particular honey bees.

One aspect of bees that often intrigues even non-scientists is how they are able to fly. In 1934, August Maganan and Andre Saint-Lague announced that bee wings had insufficient lift to allow them to glide. Goodman however shows the mechanisms explaining how this is possible. These have since been proved by high-speed photography that revealed that the wing shape produces a movement of air that creates the additional lift required. 

Charles Darwin and bees

The relationship between bees and plants has been of interest for thousands of years. Research into this partnership has focused on the characteristics, such as colour and form of flower, which certain plants have developed to attract pollinators searching for nectar and pollen. Research has also focused on the different effects that plants can have on these insects. 

Charles Darwin was one such individual who studied the interaction between plants and insects in his book: The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, first published in 1862.

His research interested many of his contemporaries such as Henry Prestoe, who wrote to Kew in 1876, keen for his observations on the attraction techniques of these plants to be communicated to Darwin to assist with his research.

"Prestoe suggests that many orchids may be found to be carnivores and this might explain some of their characteristics, for example the ‘bucket-like lip’ of the Coryanthes in Darwin’s book on orchid fertilisation, which is yet unexplained.

Prestoe has observed that this ‘bucket’ fills with a sweet liquid, which drowns the majority of insects that visit it and appears to effect its fertilisation. A very specific type of metallic green bee visits the Coryanthes and he has found a nest, which he is sending to RBG Kew in the hopes that it can be forwarded to Darwin to help him ascertain its unique relationship with the Coryanthes.

They [bees] do not visit briefly for honey but linger with the flowers and frequently fall into the fluid inside where, he believes, they die and their bodies provide nourishment for the Coryanthes’ fertilised ovule."

A transcription of a letter written by Henry Prestoe in 1876. This letter is part of the Directors’ Correspondence collection and can be viewed online at JSTOR global plants.

Bees at Kew: a short history

Bees have been further encouraged at Kew through bee keeping. Although not a Kew employee, John Scott Marshall (editor of the Gardener’s Chronicle 1937-1952) funded scholarships in horticulture and apiary for students at Kew.

In 1992 a formal bee garden was installed behind the box-covered mound in the Queen's Garden. This garden contained a selection of bee plants such as sainfoin and dandelion, as well as a combination of traditional and modern bee hives. The bee garden has now been moved to the Wildflower Area near Elizabeth Gate, where the wildflowers provide ample food for the bees.

The connection between bees and Kew's history makes the Gardens the perfect host for The Hive. This unique structure was designed by UK based artist Wolfgang Buttress, and is inspired by scientific research into the health of bees. The installation is made from thousands of pieces of aluminium, and hundreds of LED lights that glow and fade as a soundtrack hums and buzzes around you. The multi-sensory elements of The Hive are responding to the real-time activity of bees in a beehive behind the scenes at Kew.

You can learn more about bees at Kew by visiting our free exhibition in the Library Reading Room at Kew this summer. You can also learn more about our relationship with bees from The Hive at Kew book – available late July 2016. The Hive is now open at Kew until November 2017. 

- Melissa Candy, Philippa Lewis and Francesca Railton -

Library, Art & Archives Graduate Trainees

Further reading

Goodman, L. J. (2003). Form and Function in the Honey Bee. International Bee Research Association; Cardiff UK. 220 pp. ISBN: 978 0 86098 243 2

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