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Urban Beekeeping: New Hives An Artful Addition To St. Petersburg Museum

Oct 24, 2019

Beekeeper Matt Davis has to walk something of a labyrinth to get to the rooftop apiary at The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. First he climbs a set of stairs, passes a gallery of boldly colored canvases, and then walks down a series of hallways.

When he reaches the museum's mechanical room, he ducks under a few pipes, walks outside and scrambles up a steel ladder.

SPECIAL REPORT: The Buzz On Florida's Honey Bees

On the south side of the MFA's roof are eight white bee boxes which Matt and his wife, Allison Davis of Noble Nectar Apiaries, tend to.

Urban landscapes like the one in St. Petersburg don't exactly conjure images of blossoms and bees. But Matt Davis says more and more cities are learning the value of cultivating honey bees within their downtowns.

“Urban beekeeping is very important for our ecosystem,” he said. “It’s kind of a different deal than keeping bees in a rural area. There tends to be more biodiversity in urban environments because of the flowers and trees that people plant.”  

Each of the hives on the museum’s roof is home to about 20,000 to 30,000 honey bees.

Davis says from this vantage point, the insects will find plenty of pollen and nectar to consume.

Matt Davis, one of the owners of Noble Nectar Apiaries in St. Petersburg.
Credit Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF Public Media

“They will be foraging on palm trees and different ornamental flowers that people plant in their yards," he said. “The big thing going right now is the Brazilian Pepper. It’s an invasive plant but the bees do really well with it. Another is Spanish Needle, which is a little white flower with a yellow center that grows as a weed here. It's very important for bees."  

As it turns out, it's not all that unusual for the Museum of Fine Arts to embrace the urban beekeeping trend. Museums from Paris to Chicago have similar rooftop apiaries.

Kristen Shepherd, executive director of the MFA, previously worked in cities with museums that had rooftop beehives, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.

With St. Petersburg city parks immediately north and south of the MFA, the bees benefit from the variety of plant species in close proximity to the museum.
Credit Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF Public Media

"We did keep bees on the roof and we harvested the honey,” said Shepherd. “It’s something that I was intent on bringing to the Museum of Fine Arts when I arrived about 2 1/2  years ago."

But the MFA isn’t just hosting the beehives and calling it a day.

They do eventually plan on selling honey in the gift shop and using it as an ingredient at the museum cafe.

Globally there are more honey bees than other types of bee and pollinating insects, so it is the world’s most important pollinator of food crops.
Credit Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF Public Media

But Allison Davis says it’s a bit too soon for that right now.

“Bees have to visit about 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey,” she said. “An average bee makes about 1/12th teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.”

For now though, Shepherd and her staff have created a whole series of bee inspired programs at the museum.

In November, there's an event called BugsGiving, which will feature a New York City chef presenting a 10-plate tasting menu using insects as ingredients. There are also bee-related activities for kids and several lectures on the schedule.

"It’s really wonderful for us to help educate our community about the decline in the bee population and how important bees are," she said.

Right now, members of the museum book club are reading "Where Honeybees Thrive," which blends interviews, poetry, and traditional research into a story about sustainability. Its author, Heather Swan, will be at the museum next month to talk about what different countries are doing to protect bees.

And, since this is a museum, there is an art exhibit that ties into the theme of bees and insects.   

Artist Jennifer Angus displays bugs in a manner inspired by Victorian wallpaper and 19th-century book illustration.

The Museum of Fine Arts commissioned artist Jennifer Angus for its newest exhibit, ‘The Grasshopper and the Ant’ and Other Stories as told by Jennifer Angus.

"Jennifer's medium is dried exotic insects that are arranged in gorgeous patterns, so I think people will find it beautiful to look at, really inspiring and very surprising," Shepherd said.

The artist says her intent is to change perceptions. And for Shepherd, it's a mission not unlike the one for the Museum of Fine Arts.

"It's important that we engage with -- and this will sound corny -- but with what is eternal, what is timeless, and what's important to the bigger picture,” she said.

And she says the way the museum can do that, is to preserve treasures not only of the art world but of the natural world.