Agata Szymanek

You create platforms such as the Ministry of Bees – Apian1 or the Intimacy Machine2, where your main subjects – bees and the natural and cultural environment that surrounds them are observed and discussed. I’m really impressed by your methods to combine research and artistic practices. Why did you start to focus on bees in your projects?

I started working with bees probably around 2011-2012. At a point when my grandfather needed help at his apiary. When he retired and gave his farm away to his son, he became a beekeeper. But getting closer to his 80 years old the job became too hard to manage alone, so he asked me for help. Since then, I started to visit bees on a regular basis. At the same time, I was doing a bachelor in photography and thought, why not bringing a camera to the apiary. Quite quickly as evidence, bees and my grandfather became my subjects. What struck aside bees themselves, was the relationship that my grandfather was able to build with such a tiny critter. The more I learn about bees and especially about human relationships with them, the more I realise that I will be working on that topic for a long time.

Bees’ vitality, intensive life cycle, social structure and their ability to produce honey – aliment with healing proprieties, provoke many uncanny feelings. Their pollination work supports one-third of the contemporary agricultural production, and when they become extinct, humans will struggle to survive. All of that arouse the reflection on our spiritual bond with bees and common partaking in the endless complementation of life and death. Historically, bees symbolized purity, and it was believed that in the afterlife human souls could materialize in their little bodies. Following this concept, I would like to ask about your project developed with a German neurobiologist Dr Randolf Menzel, in which the scientist introduces the idea of symbolic transformation into the bee through his dream visions. This reposition inspires him to revalue standpoints in his scientific research. Can you tell me more about your collaboration?

Before answering that question, I would like to underline that: for sure, if honeybees end up disappearing, it would be tragic for humans and for the planet, but we can be sure that they won’t be the first bee species to disappear. Beekeepers take great care of them, and while massive threats such as pesticides, global warming, varroa mites, and so on, endangered them the same threats are killing solitary bees and other communal species of bees, and a vast majority of insects at a much higher rate. Hence, more than honeybees, we should be worried about all the bees and more broadly insects. Bees, indeed, have been used for endless metaphors and symbolic representations, in the case of Dr. Menzel it is quite different. I’ve met Randolf during my master’s degree in Berlin. Back then, it was 2016, I didn’t know much about scientific research concerning bees and even less about Dr. Menzel. He happened to have his lab on the campus, and as I was doing my master on some similar topics, I asked him for an interview. Then, I realised that he was probably one of the most known bee researchers alive. He was, as always, really welcoming and helpful. He shared all his lab research and his experience with me patiently. Close to the end of the interview, I don’t remember which question prompted that, but he told me that at the beginning of his career as a neurobiologist working with bees, he had several dreams within which he was becoming a bee. Having this serious, worldly recognised neurobiologist telling me that, was simultaneously fascinating, touching and quite mind-blowing. Coming from the arts and studying visual anthropology, I was amazed to see that neurobiology wasn’t as immune to certain experimental methods of research that I naively thought at the time. It was just based on another epistemology that I am still trying to learn. Straight after our meeting, I knew I wanted to do a project about this topic with him. I used part of the interviews for my master’s thesis, and then I continued to work, trying to keep in contact with Dr. Menzel as much as possible. The difficult point for me was that I didn’t want to reduce himself to these dreams. They are, of course, fascinating, but they are anecdotic when it comes to his career and all that he accomplished. So the point was to make a film about him and his research in the first place. During my work for the project, I encountered an interview in German with Dr. Menzel, made by a visual anthropologist Martin Gruber. Martin generously agreed to share parts of the interview in our film. This project is taking the form of an experimental documentary made in collaboration with Laurent Güdel (artist and musician), Robert Torche (artist and musician), Ellen Lapper (visual anthropologist) and Randolf Menzel. We showed the first draft during the Musikfestival in Bern (Switzerland) last summer (2021). We keep working on it at the moment and it’s far from finished. But the idea is to divide it into small chapter that tackle, Dr. Menzel research, the question of a dream from his story but also the question of dreams on a more epistemological level. Our aim is to use Dr. Menzel experience to try to develop a scientific method of becoming another animal. I believed that Dr. Menzel indirectly paved the way for a possible method of becoming. If we can’t know what is it like to be another animal while being awake can we while dreaming? Could the creation of a serious and controlled environment for dreaming be used as a method of understanding animal life or psychology in a deeper way, saying that from a serious scientific standpoint? Could a weird experimental method like that bring something to the field?

In the audio-documentary Therianthropy Dr. Menzel describes what bees’ dreams could be about. He mentions nice dreams like dreaming about flower, journey during a sunny day, harmony, but also disastrous dreams like encounter with the spider or expecting something that is already gone, for example, following a plant that is not where it was supposed to be. Dr. Menzel highlights the amount of mental work that a bee needs to process during her sleep. What becoming a bee means to you personally? Did Dr. Menzel’s reflection inspire you to use this method of imagining in your work?

I’ve personally never dreamt of being a bee, and I’m not a big dreamer, so I’m not really expecting it to happen to be honest. But it’s actually quite a straightforward idea for me, especially when your subject of research is not human. When you study and work with bees, you would like to know what it is like to be one. That would solve a lot of questions one has about them. Thomas Nagel wrote an important paper on this question3, but the problem is that his conclusion is based on a specific philosophical position, which believes that part of consciousness or mind can never be reached or grasped. This philosophical stance pushes him to conclude that it is not possible to be a bat. In his article, he is taking the example of the bat because of its really alien sensorium for humans. But I would like to think that it’s actually a possible task and maybe an easier one that we can think of at first. I really like this quote by Ernst Cassirer, who says: “The only clue to animal life is given to us in the facts of comparative anatomy. If we know the anatomical structure of an animal species, we possess all the necessary data for reconstructing its special mode of experience.4” One could call it naive, but I think it is the only way to approach it, as long as our definition of anatomical structure is broad enough. So for me becoming a bee is not something I regularly practice, but following Dr. Menzel’s experience, I believe it could be part of a serious method regarding our understanding of other beings.

At the moment, at least, as humans had a chance to taste a bit of bee’ essential aliment – honey, what in a small part can get us closer to their experiences. As the only sweetening material known by our ancestors and one of the first fermented nutriment, honey was quickly recognized as a substance of magical and religious qualities, and it was an essential element of early religious rites, treated as the food of gods and the giver of life. Honey was used, for example, during libations at Delphic and Eleusinian oracles and some sacred animals, like crocodiles in ancient Egypt, were fed with honey. I know you also collect honey. How did you learn this practice, and how this knowledge and processes can be used in art?

Honey is a fascinating product, and like a lot of products from the hive, it has been used for millennia for many different reasons. There is an amazing paper by Alyssa N. Crittenden (2011), who proposes to re-evaluate the importance of honey consumption in human evolution and brain development. She states that: “Honey is one of the most energy-dense foods in nature (Skinner 1991), but despite suggestions that it may have been an important food source for early Homo […], it has received little attention in most reconstructions of early hominin diet composition.” 5 She further claims that to understand the neural expansion of the human brain we must incorporate honey and larvae consumption into our research6. Around 80-95 percent of honey is sugar (fructose and glucose), and it also contains essential vitamins and minerals. Although small amounts of protein are found in commercially processed honey, when it is harvested according to traditional honey hunting techniques, the traces of larvae found significantly increase its protein7. Simultaneously, we can find an abundance of proof through rock art depicting honey hunting that it was already a large part of Palaeolithic diet and daily life8, and we can speculate that it was already exploited before. However, like most beekeeping tools and techniques it does not often survive archaeological record. Today, some people still highly depend on honey and larvae consumption, such as the Efe from the Ituri Forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During their honey season that lasts from July to August, they rely almost entirely on food from honeybees – up to 70% of the diet by weight and 80% by calories9. I learnt beekeeping with my grandfather. And after his death, I kept keeping bees by passion but also as a method of research. The production of honey has never been a target for me. When it is a good year for beekeeping, I extract a bit, and I’m really happy to harvest it. It is a nice gift and something to share with friends and other people, but I don’t keep bees in order to produce honey. Concerning art and honey, I think it would be a pity to use honey to waste for a weird sculpture, but I’m really inspired about its importance in human evolution and I started to think about a piece in relation to that.

The hexagon, just after circle and triangle, is one of the most symbolic figures. We can meet it in the centre formed by the encounter of the upward-pointing triangle and the downward-facing triangle what expresses the symbiosis of two opposite energies. Hexagon and number six are associated with divinity, balance and love. Probably the observation of the honeycomb and bees helped our ancestors to establish those associations.

As for metaphors, the hexagonal structure of the honeycomb has inspired many people, from sculptures to architects. There is a wonderful book about the importance of bees in the history of architecture by Juan Antonio Ramirez, which is called The Beehive Metaphor10. Regarding hexagonal shape, the clearest example of its influence on architecture is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Honeycomb House. But I always like to refer, talking about hexagon, this paper by C. W. W. Pirk (2004) called Honeybee combs: construction through a liquid equilibrium process?. Quite often, we are amazed by the precision of bee combs, and even Marx got fooled by it, but actually, this article shows that bees don’t design this shape; the shape is simply created by the law of physics. Bees warm up the wax, and once it is melting, it takes the shape of a hexagon because it is how physics works, like with bubble soap, for example.

This is such an interesting fact and talking about beeswax, figures of animals, humans and spirits made of this material were used in various ceremonies by magicians of Egypt, Babylonia, India and many more locations. Thanks to its plasticity, it has a long tradition of being implemented in art practices. Have you ever tried to work with beeswax?

Like honey, beeswax has been used for millennia by humans for many different productions. It was one of the most important and widely used ancient technologies for cire perdue (lost-wax casting), in which the wax model creates the mould for the liquid metal, eventually producing sculptures, jewellery, and ornaments, as well as bronze axes and spearheads. In this technique, the wax model precedes the metallic armament; early weapon manufacturing was reliant on the beehive. I personally worked only once with wax to produce a bust of my grandfather. I did many pictures of him, especially during my first project The Beehive Metaphor11, but mostly working with sculptures at the time, I felt the need to create something three dimensional. Hence, using silicone at first, I cast a mould of his bust, with the help of my mum. I guess, like many art students, you end up turning part of your family into assistants. Then, I decided to fill it with wax from his own bees. It was, for me an important sculpture, and now that he passed away, it is a nice legacy of him. But otherwise, I’m not really interested in working with wax, honey or any product of the hive at least not for the moment.

On the cover of your wonderful book Hives, 2400 B.C.E. – 1852 C.E. we can see a picture of a beehive designed to depict Madonna of bees. This religious representation was able to enforce the apotropaic values of the beehive and its strength to avert the evil eye. How did you encounter this image and what this project is about?

I found this image in a Swiss-German beekeeping journal but this hive is typical of beehives made in the north of Germany, particularly in Lüneburger Heide area. People in this area used to craft wooden visages onto the beehive to protect bees from harm or evil influences. The book is a long-term project which aims to rewrite the history of the beehive, or more than rewrite, to propose another version, a non-historical version of it. Except for a nice book by Gene Kritsky called The Quest for the Perfect Hive, there is almost nothing about this history. There is, of course, Eva Crane’s research which provides most of the things we know today about beehives, but in the bigger part, it shows that we don’t know much. Beehives have always been built with really fragile materials, and not much attention has been brought to it by archaeologists. When I was trying to fathom this history, I realised that the best source to try to understand it was images. Hence, I started to collect images and, at some point, I felt like I had enough to start to play and compose a visual and non-historical version of beehive’s ontology. By non-historical, I mean that it doesn’t focus on a beginning. As Yuk Hui states in his last book, Art and Cosmotechnics, history needs an origin, a specific point. Without origin, there is no history, and there is no origin without history. We have solid evidence from a bas-relief in ancient Egypt dating 2400 BCE that shows beekeepers working with beehives. But the advanced technic used in this image and the importance of bees for hominin, force us to say that it started before. But because of the scarcity of proofs and the importance of bees for humans, it seems essential not to be stopped by a lack of physical evidence and embrace less obvious proof such as pictures even if they are already speculative re-construction of possible hives. Hence, the book, more than trying to claim to tell The History of the beehive, solely aims to create a codex that, with a playful assemblage of images, shows how rich this history should have been. It also became a source for future research about this history, led by anyone interested in it. At the moment, I’m re-writing in collaboration with the visual anthropologist Ellen Lapper, the introduction of the book for the second edition, which should be available March-April 2022.

In your art practices, you often engage sound or, in this case, unsound. It was considered that the hum of bees is actually the voices of the souls accumulation. Could you relate to your project HISS in this context?

At some point during my research, I realised that sound or noise was quite an important feature of beekeeping practice. Bees don’t have ears, but they use sonic cues that they feel through their bodies to communicate. Having learned beekeeping with my grandfather, who was deaf, I’ve never really thought about this question. But after reading some articles about it and talking with beekeepers that were using sound cues to lead their practice, I realised that it was a really important part of beekeeping. Knowing mostly nothing about sounds, noise or music, I decided to collaborate with a friend. Laurent Güdel is a musician and artist from Bienne (Switzerland), who focuses on noise. I asked him to come with me on the current fieldwork that I was doing in Morocco. And a few weeks later, we were listening to bees in an isolated village in the Moroccan mountains. His first reaction was that bees actually sound like his own noise music. We were recording Souaf Hassan’s beehive. A local beekeeper from Inzerki village that I used to collaborate with. Discussing with him, we realised how sound was crucial for his practice. Hassan uses sonic cues to know if he can leave his apiary, especially during the swarming season, for example. Listening to the queens, he can spot the specific sound, they produce before swarming. Broadly speaking, once getting old or if the hive is too busy, the queen will leave the hive with part of the bees and leave larvae ready to be transformed into a new queen by the bees left behind. While it is the way bees reproduce, it is a loss for beekeepers. The idea is if you are on site, you can follow the swarm and catch it to bring it back. Hence, this meeting and this experience gave birth to a piece called HISS. This sonic ethnography piece mixes interview of Souaf Hassan, Laurent Güdel’s music and recordings made directly in beehives in Morocco. Actually, we just produced a tape version of HISS which should be on sale on in the coming weeks. After that piece, Laurent and I continued to collaborate using a similar format, and we made two other audio pieces that were broadcast on the BBC. One was made with Lars Chittka, a former student of Randolf Menzel, who leads the Bee Sensory and Behavioural Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London. And more recently, we made another one sonic version of Therianthropy that I talked about at the beginning of this conversation­ which seems to be the right time to close the loop12.

Aladin Borioli – his work borrows methods from anthropology and philosophy, and combines them with the practice of art and beekeeping. Since 2014, he has been working on the development of a ministry of bees called “Apian,” which explores the age-old interspecies relationship between humans and bees. The results are polymorphous ethnographies, which mix different media such as text, photography, sound and videos. In 2020, Apian published its first book, Hives / Ruches (RVB/Images Vevey, 2020) – a visual atlas of the beehive. “Apian” also aims to be collaborative and has been a site for meeting around shared sensibilities, for example with Randolf Menzel, Laurent Güdel and Ellen Lapper. His work has been shown most recently at Eyebeam 2021, Images Vevey 2020, ICA London 2020 and CTM Festival Berlin 2019, among others. He holds a MA in Visual & Media Anthropology (Freie Universität Berlin, 2018), a BA in Photography (ECAL, 2014) and a certificate program in Critical Philosophy at The New Centre for Research and Practice.




3 N. Thomas, What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, “The Philosophical Review” 1974, no. 83/4, p. 435–450.

4 E. Cassirer, An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture, New Haven 1944.

5 A. N. Crittenden, The Importance of Honey Consumption in Human Evolution, “Food and Foodways” 2011, no. 19 /4, p. 257.

6 Ibidem, p. 266.

7 Ibidem, p. 258.

8 Ibidem, p. 260.

9 Ibidem, p. 262.

10 An article and a book related to that issue are: E. Bunge, Bee Modern: An Interview with Juan Antonio Ramirez, „Cabinet” 2001, <> and J. Ramírez, Beehive Metaphor. From Gaudí to Le Corbusier, Chicago 2000.

11 More information about the project: <>

12 You can listen to this piece at: <>


E. Cassirer, An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture, New Haven 1944.

A. N. Crittenden, The Importance of Honey Consumption in Human Evolution, “Food and Foodways” 2011, no. 19/4, p. 257.

N. Thomas, What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, “The Philosophical Review” 1974, no. 83/4, p. 435–450.

Agata Szymanek

was born in 1990, she lives and works in Mysłowice, Poland. She studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, where she obtained a doctorate. She is also a certificate student at the New Centre for Research and Practice (Seattle). An author of the research publication Spiritual Exercises published in 2020 by the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice. The book contains interviews with artists on magical and esoteric motifs in their artworks, shedding new light on these topics on the Polish art scene. In 2020, she received a scholarship in the field of culture from the Marshal of the Silesian Voivodeship and the scholarship program of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland – Culture in the network. She has collaborated with institutions and galleries such as Stiftung Künstlerdorf (Schöppingen, DE), Youth Biennial (Belrgrade, SRB), Hornsey Town Hall Arts Center (London, UK), Christmas Steps Gallery (Bristol, UK), Dumbo Arts Festival (New York, USA), Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki (Warsaw), Bwa Awangarda (Wrocław, Poland), Galeria Bielska BWA (Bielsko-Biała, Poland), Rondo Sztuki (Katowice), Centre for the Meeting of Cultures (Lublin), Artists’ Colony (Gdańsk, Poland), Silesian Museum (Katowice, Poland), and City Museum (Tychy).
ORCID: 0000-0002-8979-5