Confront your fear of bumblebees: Nose into human-size nests at Descanso Gardens


If you’ve ever felt that seductive mix of fear and fascination for the burly bumblebee, you must visit artist Jessica Rath’s exhibit, “fruiting bodies,” at Descanso Gardens’ Sturt Haaga Gallery through April 5.

Yes, our rational mind knows that bumblebees are gentle giants, more clowns than menace, but their foreboding buzz in the garden triggers some instinctive RUN! impulse that usually overrides all rational thought.

In “resonant nest” (all Rath’s titles are lowercase), Rath and composer Robert Hoehn have created a way for you to confront your terror head-on, in a room filled with giant translucent bumblebee nests, mesmerizing choral music and the random ominous BUZZ of big, unseen bees. Hoehn’s music is calming and trance-inducing, like monastery meditation chants, making it possible for buzz-a-phobes to fight their flight instinct every time the buzzing begins.


The goal, says Rath, is that we get past our human awareness to experience the many “moods” of bumblebees that are based on weather. “We wanted to do a musical portrait of their diurnal — daily — activities. They’re slow in the beginning of the day, when the air is colder, and as it warms they become more active, but if there’s too much wind or rain they return to their nests, and if it’s too cold, they actually rub their bodies against each other to generate heat,” Rath said.

The exhibit includes glowing human-size tumblers (i.e. bumblebee nests) equipped with speakers that periodically buzz in a way that feels both ominous and soothing. Against all this is Hoehn’s encompassing music, which is linked to weather feeds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We wanted the score to be abstract enough to be meditative, without normal human narratives or arcs in the music, not even melodies,” Rath said. “The score layers and loops in six parts, and we brought in NOAA weather feeds so the music changes during the day based on weather cues.”

The buzzing sounds are interpretations of bumblebee sounds scored by Rath and performed by members of the Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir of Cal State Long Beach (who also perform Hoehn’s music).

Rath also scored a “vibration” that bumblebees make to warn off intruding mammals, “but humans were too afraid of that score,” she said. “Robert [Hoehn] is a very kind soul who cares deeply that you have a more meditative experience and not be interrupted by any kind of fear, so we negotiated and didn’t use it.”

But “fruiting bodies” is about more than just bees. Rath, a Los Angeles-based artist who teaches sculpture and design at the ArtCenter of Pasadena, has created an exhibit that looks at how human activity has affected “nonhuman” species — specifically bees, apples and tomatoes, with the help of composer Hoehn, her longtime collaborator, plus U.C. Davis biologist Anne Leonard and Cornell University horticulturist and apple geneticist Susan K. Brown.


The exhibit includes oversize, shockingly red tomatoes in a room that examines how humans have genetically modified the shape, color and size of the fruit to match our human-made ideas of “deep red.” In the apple exhibit, visitors can watch a short but fascinating film of her trip to the Tian Shan mountains in Kazakhstan to visit the world’s last forest of wild apple trees. The exhibit includes sculptures of the apples she found there and couldn’t bring back into the United States because of U.S. Customs restrictions.

In the Boddy House next door, Rath has created a 7-foot-tall manzanita anther that resembles a pair of giant lungs. The sculpture “staminal evolution” demonstrates the phenomenon of buzz pollination with a breathing/buzzing sound meant to represent the plant’s pollen release when solitary bees like bumblebees grab the anthers and cause them to vibrate.

If you’re coming to see the gardens, make a point of touring the gallery exhibit (there’s no additional fee). Or visit during several special activities planned in January, February and March, when Rath and others will show off the specially designed bee hotels and nests she and Hoehn created and placed around the gardens. For more information about tickets and registration, closer to the time of the events, visit the “fruiting bodies” website.

"fruiting bodies"

Where: Descanso Gardens’ Sturt Haaga Gallery, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; ends April 5

Tickets: Free with $9 admission to the gardens, $6 seniors/students, $4 ages 4-12


Jan. 26

Rath and composer Hoehn lead a garden walk-through of the solitary bee hotels and and other outdoor works, along with a tour of the gallery, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Feb. 29-March 1

Forage with horticulturist and ecological systems engineer Nance Klehm throughout the gardens at noon and at 2 p.m. on Feb. 29 and 10 a.m. on March 1. Advance registration required.

March 7

CSU Long Beach’s Master Chorale performs a special 15-minute arrangement of “Bee Song” by composer Hoehn written for the “resonant nest” bumblebee nest exhibit at 5:45, 6:30 and 7:15 p.m. Advance tickets required.

March 15

Rath and “Radical Botany” authors Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari screen early 20th century botanical films and then discuss them from noon to 3 p.m.