An artistic endeavour to make Auckland the most bee-friendly city in the world

by Kate Richards / 03 May, 2017
Photography- Caitlin McKone
Sarah Smuts-Kennedy talks to students about examples of bee-friendly parks.
“Brix, as in b.r.i.x. A brix level is sugar content. Every plant has its own excellent unique brix componentry. When they are growing at their perfect rate, plants emit an ultraviolet light, like a street lamp that is always on.”

I’m half an hour in to a very long and complicated chat about bees, and plants, and biodynamics, and composting, and art with artist Sarah Smuts-Kennedy. She’s a mile-a-minute talker; thoughts and ideas radiate from her at high speed. “I can’t tell anything in a linear fashion,” she explains. “I honestly am hopeless – it just sort of doesn’t interest me to do that, but it is useful for people.”

I nod along while she natters away – there’s little point in interjecting – and waters the raised beds in Wellesley Street’s new Auckland Council-funded community space, Griffiths Gardens, as she goes. She speaks so intently, it’s a wonder she doesn’t trip over the hose she’s been dragging about, which trails around our feet in a snake-like mess.

She continues: “When it [the plant] doesn’t have the right brix level, that ultraviolet light starts to flash. Insects have antennae – this is a story that I need you to tell, ‘cause I want everyone in Auckland to know this – antennae that can read the ultraviolet spectrum. Insects are flying around looking for flashing lights because they know that a plant that’s a flashing light is rubbish, and they’re rubbish collectors. They process rubbish and begin it on its journey back to becoming plants. So what happens? You need to use pesticides and insecticides and fungicides – ‘cide’ means kill. Kill the pest. Your plant is so weak it cannot resist insects because it’s rubbish. We have bees feeding from the same rubbish plants and what we’re starting to notice is that they have inside them what looks like colon cancer.”

Read: 50 things to do in Auckland for under $20 

Clockwise from top Beehives in Myers Park, a student plants seeds, and a bee smoker is used to calm the bees as hives are checked.

I’m here, in Smuts-Kennedy’s “biology-first teaching hub”, because she’s just embarked on a two-year collaborative project, For the Love of Bees, which aims to make Auckland the most bee-friendly city in the world. She wants to create an urban ecosystem, through education, that supports bees and connects Auckland residents.

It sounds simpler than it is, because her plans are ever-evolving and she seems to think up a new idea each second for this project. Already underway are weekly two-hour lunchtime planting and seed-saving lessons at Griffiths, beehives placed in Myers and Victoria parks with monthly beekeeping workshops, “pasture paintings”, which are geometrically planted flowers that create pollinator pathways between parks, and city-wide school projects focussed on hive monitoring.

Smuts-Kennedy describes the work as a social sculpture, a term first coined by artist Joseph Beuys in the 1960s to describe a type of art which alters the environment in which it’s placed. She will attempt to shape the city’s view of sustainable, bee-friendly growing as she rallies a community of Aucklanders to collaborate on these and various other interlinked permaculture projects. She has form in this game: last year, she installed beehives in Victoria Park and encouraged gardeners in a 6.5-kilometre radius to send in photos of their own “pollen stations” that bees might enjoy.

A Kauri Flats School student collects feijoas at Griffiths Gardens

Griffiths is already home to the aforementioned community garden with many bee-friendly flowers, a tool shed and bike repair station. There is also a nursery and, coming soon, a seed-saving bank and education centre, where teaching resources can be accessed by the general public. All resources collected throughout the two-year period are being made permanently available online through the For the Love of Bees website.

Smuts-Kennedy has a first-class honours degree in Fine Arts from Elam and has dedicated years of her life to ecological research. Art and the environment are two of her most obvious passions, but her hyper-intelligence and intensity can make it difficult to understand her work. Somewhere along the way I get lost, and she can tell. “I know there’s so much to learn, which is why two years is good… I said to the kids yesterday, ‘You’ll go home and say that funny lady, she went on about all this stuff and it sort of made sense at the time and now I can’t remember anything’. It’s going to be like that for a while.” Luckily, Smuts-Kennedy’s passion is contagious. It infects the atmosphere, and if we don’t get it straight away, she’ll do her utmost to make sure that after two years, we do. 


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