Urban Pollinator House Fabrication
In the summer of 2017, the “Bee Real” team came to Blue Rhino Studio with a model and many ideas for what they would like us to fabricate for them. It was to be an pollinator house for bees and butterflies, and to be installed in a few urban park settings. Public Art Saint Paul was launching the “Bee Real-Bee Everywhere” campaign and this was one of the main facets of the campaign.
I was tasked with designing and building these Urban Pollinator Habitats (known as Bee Sky Rises for this project). The “Bee Real” team was composed of Artist Christine Baeumler (Art Professor, UMN), Artist Amanda Lovelee and Artist Julie Benda (Both from Public Art St. Paul), Research Scientist Colleen Satyshur (Bee Expert, UMN), and Colleen Sheehy (Executive Director of Public Art Saint Paul).
I must note that the superb graphic design for the Bee Real – Bee Everywhere Project was done by This is Folly.
Pollinator Habitat Purpose
The purpose of these pollinator habitats is three fold. First, the UMN bee lab is conducting a study to determine the most ideal habitat for these specific pollinators. Second, to provide solitary bees a place to live in an urban setting, while pollinating the local flora. And third, is to have an interesting and beautiful artwork that invites the public to enjoy and learn about the importance of pollination, and in particular, solitary bees.
Solitary, Wild and Mason Bees
Mason Bees are one kind of Solitary Bee, a.k.a Wild Bee. This project specifically focused on Mason Bees as inhabitants for the habitats. That would determine the exact nature of the nesting blocks.
Since solitary bees do not live in hives, they don’t make honeycomb as do Honey Bees. Even so, the Bee Team felt it necessary to have hexagonal elements in order to give the general public a clue as to what the sculpture was for. Interestingly, the hexagonal “devices” used in the Bee Sky Rises help spark the conversation about the exact nature of Solitary Bees and how they contrast with the well known Honey Bee.
One the first 2 out of 4 sculptures, we had a couple butterfly houses as well. They are the tall vertical square pieces with the long slits. These were not part of the study, but included for aesthetics and for curiosity’s sake. People debate whether or not butterflies actually use butterfly houses, but they are a common addition to pollinator gardens across the country. We may soon know more.
Like 90% of the world’s 21,000 bee species are solitary, meaning that they do not live in a hive. … With all this work to do, Mason bees are far too busy to be aggressive towards people. They only sting as a last resort, and the venom they release from a sting is very mild.
— The Honey Bee Conservancy
I produced the design in SketchUp which is great because you can move all around in that 3D space and really get a feel for what you’re designing. You can even add visual textures to the different materials, define the look of the sky and ground and even adjust the shadows. The shadows are based on the sun angle at the time of day you enter which is based upon the latitude you enter.
So I came up with a few versions that looked pretty close to what they were thinking. We would correspond through emails with the SketchUp models and screenshots and get most of our work done that way. So with that and a couple meetings we got the go ahead on fabrication.
For the steel work, we used a few tricks to create files from SketchUp for the different steel parts that we would have laser cut out. The wood parts we would fashion in-house by referring to the SketchUp model directly. It’s helpful at times to add dimensions in the model and print out views and pieces.
We received our laser cut steel parts and welded all the various components together and cleaned up all the edges. The main parts consisted of the inner frame, the hexagonal prism base and pole interface, the hexagonal habitat steel housings, the horizontal hexagonal grids, and the vertical hexagons, and the roof plates. It is important to knock-down sharp edges on the steel for powder coating. Powder coating does not lay well on sharp edges and can become a point of failure for oxidation to take hold. We then dry-fitted all the wood pieces, and then removed them for powder coating. Then sent all the pieces to a powder coating company and waited a couple weeks.
Once we got back our beautifully powder coated steel parts, we began the wood working. The wood is all Douglas Fir, which our bee expert at the UMN confirmed was a good wood for Mason Bees and solitary bees in general. We glued up 2″ stock for the hexagonal habitat blocks, cut those out and then drilled 6″ deep holes in them for the Mason Bees. It was determined that common wood glue would not adversely effect the bees.
Mason bees find homes in holes in various places in nature, one of them being dead trees. They use holes that are deep enough to avoid birds with long beaks. Part of the research done by the UMN Bee Lab was to determine the size of hole they preferred. So the blocks have different size holes ranging from 1/8″ to 5/16″ diameter. Also to note: The blocks are all facing east and south and somewhere in between, since it is already known that they prefer that exposure.
The wood habitats were kept natural, and will decay at a moderate rate as wood would in nature. And the habitats are pulled out in the fall and replaced with blanks for the winter. The rest of the wood was spar varnished to help protect it from the elements. Prior to varnishing, we laser engraved some decorative designs on some of the pieces.
We then assembled the sculpture, fixing wood to steel, and fixing exterior steel elements through the wood to the steel inner structure (chassis). We used all stainless steel hardware for this so that rusting would not be an issue. Of course, the weld nuts on the chassis are regular steel, and the stainless screws mount to those weld nuts.
Always Use Anti-Seize Lubricant on Stainless Steel Fasteners!
It is important to note that whenever using stainless steel hardware, it is critical to use an anti-seize lubricant, even when it’s a stainless screw going into a mild steel nut. Otherwise, you can have gauling. Gauling happens when you are tightening a stainless fastener and it “welds” itself to the nut. It is a strange phenomenon, but it’s happened to me a number of times. It’s more likely to happen if you are using a driver to quickly drive the screw. Do it manually with a screwdriver! When you do have gauling, it is virtually impossible to break the screw free. You are left with the only option of removing the screw and nut together, and welding on a new weld nut!
The first two sculptures were larger and heavier. The last two had a refined design with fewer elements: 6 instead of 8 bee habitats and no butterfly houses. A structural engineer helped determine the required footing and pole diameter and gauge minimums. The Bee Team enlisted a concrete person to install the poles in 6 foot deep concrete footings.
Finally, at each site we would arrive with a tow-behind boom lift, tools, some rigging chains, a compass and our sculpture. The orientation of the sculpture was critical. The first design (#1 and #2 Sky Rises) had a split interface where we first installed the lower interface onto the pole and then guided in the sculpture with a boom lift and connected its interface with the pole interface. The second design (#3 and #4 Sky Rises) had no interface; the sculpture would slip right into the top of the pole and be bolted on. I had a hunch that the 2-part interface was not necessary which proved to be true.
The Bee Real Bee Everywhere campaign has been a success. We are refining a third design and hope to find some locations to do some more. Hopefully, we’ll get a couple more in the ground the upcoming summer. Below are maps to the current locations and further below are a few links to relevant content relating to this project.