Janelle Dunlap Turns Beekeeping Into Art
Hundreds of thousands of honeybees make their home atop The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, and it's up to Janelle Dunlap to make sure the hives thrive.
Dunlap was hired earlier this year as the Urban Honey Bee Project's (UHBP) first-ever beekeeper in residence. Throughout her residency, she'll conduct research into the pollinator's place in our ecosystem and how beekeeping may offer relief to veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while connecting with the bees through art.
Dunlap had been gardening for over a decade, but in 2016, when she got the urge to find new ways to engage with nature, she recalled a powerful piece of imagery that shaped her childhood — Wu-Tang Clan's music video for “Triumph” and its depiction of the group's members as a powerful swarm of Africanized killer bees.
"The political messaging and tying Africanized killer bees in with the stereotypes and the tropes of African Americans in the media, and the way that that was so poetically tied in, visually stuck with me,” she said. “It was the first time I recognized a political message being articulated through art. For that reason, it stuck with me that bees were a form of strong symbolism tied to resilience."
Living in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dunlap became a certified beekeeper under the Mecklenburg County Beekeepers Association in 2017. She continued practicing as she moved around the country, with stops in Chicago and Denver, eventually landing in Atlanta in 2021. Looking for a way to connect to the local beekeeping community, she attended an April presentation by UHBP Director Jennifer Leavey, who offered Dunlap a chance to get involved at Georgia Tech.
She now handles the inspection of the hives on The Kendeda Building roof, where she monitors for pests and ensures the bees have proper nutrition to sustain their population through the seasons. The UHBP began in 2012 with the goal of educating the Tech community on the importance of these pollinators within the Atlanta ecosystem and beyond — a charge that Dunlap carries on.
Over the next year, she will continue working on her sound art project that examines the frequency at which bees “buzz” and how it, along with the responsibilities of beekeeping, is being used by VA hospitals and programs to ease the effects of PTSD. While the science behind the connection is still being explored, beekeeping was recommended more than a century ago — to soldiers returning home from World War I — according to a CNBC profile of Bees4Vets, a nonprofit based in Nevada.
From the Hive to the Canvas
Whether it was baking sourdough bread or learning a new language, many people, including Dunlap, took the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to pick up a new hobby. She began a master's program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with the goal of using beeswax in encaustic painting, which uses hot wax mixed with pigments. The use of natural materials collected through her beekeeping practice connects Dunlap to her work.
“It's a way of tapping into another level of consciousness. It's a way of articulating the noncommunicable relationship between me and the bees. When there's a language gap between people, we try to fill it in with translation, but without a direct way to translate the language or the sensation that I feel from the bees, this allows me to document my practice in an abstract form,” she said.
By layering the wax and applying heat throughout the process, Dunlap watches the pieces take shape, often with the unpredictability of an active hive, as she says the art “can create itself.” She collects the wax in small amounts, knowing that she can only produce her art if the bees are healthy.
"It's an eco-conscious practice, making sure I don't use more than I need," she explained. “I love the landscape it creates, and it's all about me creating a direct relationship with my medium and knowing that I earned it by developing a relationship with the bees."
As Dunlap continues her year-long residency with the UHBP, she intends to help educate the community, both on campus and around the Atlanta area, in the hopes that more prospective beekeepers will explore their curiosity to unlock the full potential of the practice.
"It's been a practice that keeps unveiling itself to me," she said. "As you get more engaged, you learn there is so much more to it than just the day-to-day hive inspections. There is a lot of beauty to it as well."
Students at Tech have several ways to get involved with research and beekeeping, including the Living Building Science VIP team, the Beekeeping Club, and various classes and workshops hosted by the UHBP.
Georgia Tech's Janelle Dunlap conducts a hive inspection at the The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design.
Janelle Dunlap is the new beekeeper in residence for Georgia Tech's Urban Honey Bee Project. Photo by Allison Carter.