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Making a buzz: Honeybees recreate ancient statue of Hadrian in Jerusalem

The Land of Milk and Honey recently saw tens of thousands of bees recreate one of its most treasured ancient finds in a rare merging of nature and art.

An iconic bronze statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian, which is one of three found worldwide and dates back some 2,000 years, was turned into an active honeycomb as 50,000 bees produced their wax onto 3D-printed grid replicas of the original.

The curators of the project, led by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, said it corresponded with the ancient “lost-wax” technique used to make the original statue, which was found in 1975 at the site of a Roman legion camp near Beit She’an.

The lost-wax technique is an ancient metal casting method in which molten metal is poured into a hollow mold created over a beeswax model, which melts away during the process. The current project aimed to recreate the beeswax models and stopped short of the next step, pouring the molten metal.

“The bees recreated a phase that we never have in archaeology, because the wax is always gone. They recreated the missing part,” said Dudi Mevorah, senior curator of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine archaeology at the museum.

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The project also seems to have taken the sting out of the often critical depiction of Hadrian in Jewish historiography, where he is seen as the cruel oppressor of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 AD.

A bronze statue of the emperor Hadrian from the Roman period, 117-138 CE. (Israel Museum/ John Williams)

“Hadrian is one of the most enlightened and amazing emperors of the Roman empire… Only the Jews remember him as an absolute tyrant… he is really a man who changed the face of the world and the face of this land. So to choose him as a star is very natural,” Mevorah said.

The team constructed beehives to house two replicas of the emperor’s head. Each replica was based on a high-level scan of the original and contained a 3D-printed grid web made of a sterile bee-friendly nylon that encouraged the bees’ activity. The beehives were then placed in the museum’s outdoor garden, where half a million bees are currently active.

The team said it took the bees about two months to produce one honeycomb statue in March’s volatile spring weather, but only four days to produce the second in the more stable conditions of late May. The newly created wax statues were then removed from the hives before the production of honey could risk their conservation. They will be displayed to the public near the original Hadrian bust within several months, the team said.

Nature as art

The creation process required not only the collaboration between the design and archaeology departments of the museum but also the expertise of a Slovak artist and a professional beekeeper. A unique connection has been thus generated between nature, museology and technology, said Rami Tareef, the museum’s curator of design and architecture.

Bees surround a honeycomb statue of the emperor Hadrian at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 2023. (Israel Museum/ Thomas Libertiny)

“The fact that a bee flies a kilometer to bring the material to build this statue in a museum, I think it’s very strong… it’s a collaboration with nature. As an ecological statement it’s very important,” Tareef said.

For artist Tomas Libertiny, who made the grid template for the bees to work on, it was like conducting an orchestra.

“The idea is that you lose direct control. Life and art are not supposed to be so rigidly governed. As an artist, I am at the mercy of nature. However, my power comes from a thorough understanding of how bees live and work. It is this knowledge that allows me to gently tap into its creative potential… I become more of a conductor of an orchestra making sure all individual strengths flow in harmony and not cacophony,” Libertiny said.

The result is a creation that is much lighter and softer than the original bronze statue, weighing less than half a kilogram (1.1 pounds), yet very resilient due to the natural durability of the beeswax material.

Team member and beekeeper Rafi Nir said it was a way to remind visitors of the hidden circle of life they’re often unaware of.

“Someone comes to a museum and sees a finite object, he is not aware that behind the statue there is wax and that behind it there is a bee. It raises the awareness that it is all part of a whole — from the flower, through the bee, to the human being.”

Aligned with this view and emphasizing the importance of bees for cities’ green lungs is the rising trend of urban beekeeping. It includes maintenance of beehives on rooftops and backyards as well as at Israel’s Knesset garden and the Jerusalem botanical gardens.