Sussex Prairie Garden is now closed until Saturday 1st June 2024. Our normal opening hours from 1st June will be Wednesday to Sunday 1pm until 5pm , closed Mondays and Tuesdays . On Sunday 2nd June we shall be holding our Early Summer Plant fair (30 exhibitors plus !) opening time 12 noon until 5pm - lots of plant nurseries , refreshments and music !

RHS Partner Garden.

Brutalist Bee Hotels – Robin Blackledge

Brighton artist Robin Blackledge has partnered up with Sussex Prairies to install a major building development of ‘Brutalist’ Solitary Bee Hotels for 2024.

The structures will be built using recycled & repurposed common building materials, collected locally. The structures are inspired by the limitations and aesthetics of these materials, ranging from a job-lot of old air bricks to drainpipes, scaffolding or decking boards.

It has become a larger collaborative art project involving local social enterprises such as The Brighton Wood Store, Brighton Freegle and sponsors from further afield such as The Straw Brothers in Bath,  a drinking straw company who has agreed to donate grass straws to the project. ‘Brutalist Bees’ explores the urgent need to upscale bio-diversity, and highlights our propensity for an anthropomorphic view of the natural world together with our fraught relationship with local planning issues and the need to build more housing.

In his own words, Robin explains some of the thoughts and ideas behind the project below:

 

…A few years ago, I saw an article in a local rag saying that Brighton Council has made it compulsory to include a ‘Bee brick’ in new build projects. Call me contrary but I don’t think that’s going to cut it, weighed against the natural habitat loss of the past 100 years in the Uk and globally. Most people reading this will remember walking through meadows in their childhood with clouds of insects rising their feet or returning from a motoring trip & having to scrape thousands of insects from the windscreen, a poignant illustration of the scale of insect loss in one or two generations. Insects are one of the foundations of life on our planet.

90% of all bees in this country are solitary with 250 species, 24 of which are Bumblebees (which generally nest in the ground). The female finds a nest, lays her eggs then leaves them to mature on their own to hatch the next spring. There is a strong, culture in the UK of creating bespoke ‘Bee Hotels’ and ‘harvesting’ the larvae from their nests into boxes to over-winter in dry sheds to be released in Spring.

I am no bee expert, but I have become fascinated by this desire to create nurturing environments for these solitary bees, & I am questioning whether this is particularly a UK phenomenon or part of a larger expanding awareness that we desperately need to upscale the amount of habitat (thus increasing biodiversity) rather than reduce it through building development. I am also postulating that the Uk’s natural love of pets and animals could play a significant role in this activity. After lockdown, activities such as this give us focus, gardening is another wonderful example of this, it gives us an element of control…what can be more satisfying than to assist in the creation of new life in a world which seems to be chaotic & out of control?

Inspiration

Knowledge has been gleaned from various Solitary Bee hotel social network forums (eg. Solitary bees in the UK -Facebook) & is, in part inspired by the individual efforts of thousands of people. I asked a question to the groups – ‘why do people use paper and bamboo tubes and then harvest them?’ Why don’t we just allow them to pupate naturally rather than extracting them from the hotels? (Some people prefer this more natural approach). The answer came back- ’If we are to go to the lengths of creating these habitats then why wouldn’t we do our best to ensure the survival of as many as possible?’ I can’t argue with that, & if we apply the same methodology for our society, why can’t we house the most unfortunate of our society as was shown that we could through both lockdowns? Research shows that it is by far cheaper to house solitary homeless individuals than to react, repair & respond to all the emergencies that those in crisis create.

Interestingly, there is a warmly contested debate amongst makers of bee hotels that question the rationality of concentrating many bee tubes together, in that it provides a rich source of food & habitat for parasites such as ‘The Houdini Fly’ or the ‘Pollen Mite’, a common indicator that Bee Hotels have been infested by unwelcome visitors. Another cataclysmic event could be a visit by a woodpecker or other bird whose long beak can literally be handed on a plate breakfast, lunch, & dinner in one location. Over the course of the year, I will, with help, evaluate which species inhabit the structures and how many survive predation.

Methodology

I am an Interloper artist in this high stakes world of Bee Hotel development but I have managed to acquire a plot of Land at Sussex Prairies. Seriously though, every solitary bee needs a home…but what is their budget? How much can they afford? How do they get on the ladder? Do they prefer more natural environments that they have to strive to make comfortable (?) or a pristine nesting tube to lay their eggs?

I am using straws made from paper and grass to line the ‘apartments’ thus limiting the transference of parasites in the tubes. The designs need to ensure that any tubes stay dry so sheltering from wind and rain is essential. The tubes (straws) will be extracted in autumn and the larvae will ‘over-winter’ in a dry shed to emerge in the Spring of ’25, hopefully taking up residence in the hotels to renew the cycle. I will note any preference in taste of design & material in relation to which species take up residence.

Brutalism

I use the term Brutalism glibly, as it seems to represent the way I have decided to execute these designs. However, the explosion of post war social housing in the 50’s was meant to be a functional plan to re-house and rebuild the nation and chimes with the desire to nurture as many bees as possible. Many projects, also had large green spaces which over the years, were filled in by further housing needs.

Over the years I have tended to be a ‘truth to materials’ artist, whether that be live performance or installation work. The following extract is from the Historic England blog and goes some way to explains my approach with this project.

‘Loved and loathed, revered and reviled: Brutalism remains one of the most controversial and misunderstood architectural styles of the 20th century. To its fans, Brutalism represents the bold, ambitious, & utopian energy of the post-war era, in which architects set about transforming towns and cities to better serve the people. To critics, Brutalism was a monstrous, dystopian landscape-destroyer.

In his seminal 1955 essay, the architectural critic Reyner Banham described the emerging trend in British architecture as ‘The New Brutalism’. Banham characterised this movement by its ‘its bloody-mindedness’ and described Alison and Peter Smithsons’ Grade II* listed school at Hunstanton as one of England’s first examples.

Not all concrete…

The Smithson’s priority was ‘reverence for materials’, be they timber, brick, concrete or glass: a Brutalist building should be constructed from natural materials honestly expressed….it is without decoration and ‘made of what it appears to be made of’: at its core, the function of the building and the materials used in its construction were honest and exposed.

A common misconception is that the word Brutalism derives from the word brutal: in reality it probably came from the French expression ‘béton brut’: French for ‘raw concrete’ and coined by the architect Le Corbusier during the construction of Unité d’Habitation in 1952.’

Habitat

A question was posed to a B & H council ranger that debated whether Bee hotels are in fact a positive thing. His opinion was that the food source is more important, & we should strive to provide more pollinating plants & foraging habitats. My personal view is that we have reduced their habitat exponentially & we desperately need to intervene to create, upscale and protect habitat and food sources. There is of course a possibility that by the provision of these pristine tubes, their natural survival instincts will be compromised, & they will become lazy, reliant on the Nanny State to provide for them, or…perhaps they’ll flourish and find their true potential, by the mere provision of a safe, dry place to live to nurture their progeny before they naturally expire.

Brutalism was, in part, a way to alleviate the housing crisis of post war Britain. A state we find ourselves in again. We have the least social housing since records began and if we are to create a fairer society for future generations it must be solved. In the current climate of developer pressure of Green Belt land & a looming relaxed planning climate then how do we create meaningful dialogue between all parties that disagree?

In the meantime, we do what we can. I can build houses for Bees & I hope they will take to my structures. I’ll be a bit annoyed if they don’t!

Green washing

I personally love the idea of green rooves on bus stops or green walls on buildings, however, they need constant maintenance & frequently have a limited life span & are usually are forgotten about after a few years…after the initial feel-good hot flush of ‘doing something for the urban environment’ has cooled. However, I also believe we do have a right to clean air to breathe and this needs to be addressed through tax incentives to move over to less polluting transport initiatives. I prefer to lobby to enrich what is left of our precious natural environment & point out areas of land which, in my view could be made more bio-diverse, merely by diverting funds used to mow grass (lawns are a bio-diverse desert – for example) to plant pollinating plants or choose more insect friendly plants in general gardening. In my road, there is an Open reach building with a medium sized plot which is mown once a year at best. This could be a beautiful, bio-diverse landscape, merely by more intelligent planting and allowing nature to be its sculptor.

Ways to assist the development

This project is self-funded, & much time & energy has been spent getting it off the ground to create the prototype structures.

Could you help me by considering sponsoring one of the Hotel structures, or buy a limited-edition bee hotel?

The more sponsorship I can get the more apartment blocks I can make, the more life and pollination we can encourage.

Ways to assist will be detailed in a website soon to be published.

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Paul & Pauline McBride,
Sussex Prairie Garden

Morlands Farm, Wheatsheaf Road (B2116),
near Henfield
, West Sussex, BN5 9AT

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    1. Sussex Prairie Garden
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      Fraser BishopFraser Bishop
      10:50 11 Jul 22
      Wonderful garden well worth a visit. Great variety of plants showing so many ways of portraying a garden layout. Must comment on the great tea and cakes selection, our dog loved the doggy ice cream!
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      15:13 06 Jul 22
      Beautifully planted area, in which you are encouraged to walk along paths between the plants so can be completely surrounded by foliage - a lovely effect.
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      08:40 28 Jun 22
      Beautiful garden, very relaxing, and bigger than you might think. Cafe is nice too
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