Close up of a skep, a traditional beehive.

The Bee Story Boxes

This guest post from our collaborator, Morvern Odling, explains a strand of the first Telling the Bees project that took place over Summer 2015 across three primary schools in our partner TayLP’s catchment area (Tayside, Scotland). Tying in with their existing curriculum work on orchards, soil and pollination, we visited each school to help students understand the importance of the honeybee through learning, creative writing, and craft activities. We designed these activities to contribute to an overall schools sharing day, where all the children would come together at a local heritage orchard to bring and swap their stories.

Close up of storybox suspended from an apple tree

An installed comb box – Photo credit: Lindsay Perth

Based in facts, tweaked for fun – this aspect of the project needed to be the visual link which brought together the bee facts, writing and then sharing of stories. We began with the idea of creating a way in which the stories the participants wrote could be placed into the landscape – orchard or park – and discovered and shared as people walked through the site. These boxes, as we loosely called them, needed to be in some way as individual as the stories held inside. The children had to be a part of completing these vessels, so they would be recognised as theirs when they came to the Schools Orchard Day or Fruit Festival.

Natural honeycomb

A natural comb – Photo credit: www.buzzaboutbees.net

The shapes of natural hives were an inspirational starting point and with such a rich visual foundation each feature of the boxes grew from aspects of this first key idea. When introducing beekeeping, I looked at bees as their own creatures, with their own stories to tell. Why do bees make this shape of hive? I wanted to encourage thinking of them as living creatures, with their own building mechanisms, plans, aims and society.

Each school was given its own shape of natural hive, each box made of laser cut mdf and birch plywood. The ribs gave strength and body, with laser engraved patterns of honeycomb adorning the front and back. When hung in the trees, they mimicked how hives would naturally grow downward from crooks in trunks or from branches. This would mean they could be scattered around each site, not concealed but hidden enough to encourage exploration.

laser cut mdf prototype

The first prototype – Photo credit: Morvern Odling

To further differentiate the three designs, each school was denoted by a colour. This was added through dyed beeswax, which covered a smattering of cells on the fronts of the boxes, imitating real hives and the ‘plugs’ which bees create on the caps of their honeycomb cells.

Pollen cells

Honey bees with their coloured pollen cells – Photo credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

Again the inspiration came from bees themselves, with the breadth pollen colour that bees collect. Rosebay Willow Herb, Buttercup or Mustard and Oil Seed Rape each have distinct coloured pollen: dark green, orange and a warm yellow respectively. I chose pollen of plants which the children would have experience of, plants which grow wild in the Tay Valley. The wealth of community published information on bees and beekeeping is an excellent source when designing and this information came from the Sheffield Bee Keepers Association.

screenshot of online pollen swatches

The three colours of the comb boxes and the breadth of British pollen colour – Image credit: www.sheffieldbeekeepers.org.uk/tools/pollen-chart

Finally once the comb hive box was assembled, four small canisters slotted into the largest hexagon spaces; to ensure the story paper rolls were kept safe from the elements.Using the cut outs created from the ribs in the body of the boxes, we were left with a large bag of different sized hexagonal tiles. These could be easily coloured with pens and assembled with glue. The base for the ‘plug’ doorways were colour matched to the coloured wax and onto this base the smaller hexagons could be coloured, decorated and stacked into different patterns.

blank laser cut tiles

Uncoloured laser cut tiles, ready to be coloured and arranged together – Photo credit: Morvern Odling

On the workshop days introducing the boxes and the four parts to each story – beginning, middle, end and illustrations- tied the day together. Around these boxes we reminded our participants of the importance sharing knowledge through story telling, and identifying the work as their own. The morning of each workshop was led by Steve Fulton the beekeeper, who shared not only images and facts about bees but a live swarm in an observation hive with the bees safely behind glass.

Steve shows an observation hive

Steve Fulton introduces the bees to the class – Photo credit: Debbie Maxwell

The stories were wild, inspired, engaging tales of children and bees; how we could live in harmony and how we couldn’t. I loved their disregard for plausibility and how often magic came up. These stories were full of facts from their earlier talk by Steve the beekeeper and he even featured in a couple. The groups invariably took turns with writing and needed little encouragement to put pen to paper, unafraid to ask questions and invent with freedom.

Drawings from a story

Illustrations from St Maddoes – Image Credit: Zak, Caden, Thomas F and Adam

Toward the end of the day I spoke a little about my role and inspiration and how I had made the boxes, the scrutiny of a room full of inquisitors unexpectedly daunting. Of course each class launched into the doorway making with the same energy and the colour and variety of pattern and arrangement of the tiles was impressive. Each child created something completely different and derived from their group’s story. Sharing was no problem either, with a forest of hands volunteering to read out their group’s tale.

Finished box doors

Finished plug doorways ready to be added onto their comb box – Image Credit: Debbie Maxwell

In the end the Scottish weather bested us on the orchard day, but it only meant that we had one last trip around the schools to share the finished boxes and stories. The Fruit Festival day in Perth was spared the Autumnal weather and the boxes and their contents were installed into Bellwood park to be discovered by festival punters and passers by alike. The boxes will now live in the classrooms of the children who helped make them and used for many more story workshops to come.

exploring the finished boxes - image Lindsay Perth

exploring the finished boxes - image Lindsay Perth

The classes at Errol and Longforgan Primary Schools share their stories – Photo credit: Lindsay Perth

opening a door in a finished box - image Lindsay Perth

The plugs or doorways to each part of the story are flipped upward on a tape hinge, to reveal the story within – Photo credit: Lindsay Perth