Kew Gardens and the Hive: bees, plants & people

I last visited the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew more than 30 years ago, and all I remember of it is being on the raised iron walkway in the palmhouse with a thundering, vomit-inducing headache (I’m not prone to them, which is why it’s stuck in my memory). The long gap between visits isn’t related and I’ve often thought “Must go back to Kew”, but as with all places relatively nearby time whizzes by and visits go unmade. However,  this summer I finally made the plan, took the day off, arrived early at the station and headed for Kew Gardens, a UNESCO World heritage site and globally important centre of scientific research.

The weather was perfect for me (and the bees): sunny and HOT – very welcome after weeks of cloud and rain. I’d met one of my dearest friends at Liverpool Street station and we took the tube out of central London. Kew itself is an affluent village-atmosphere district with its mixture of quaint, pretty buildings and low-rise blocks of 1930s-style flats. Although the hum of London permeates everything and the constant drone of overhead aircraft is tedious, first impressions were of a calm and attractive part of town. A 10/15-minute walk brought us to the Garden’s perimeter wall; once through the entrance, the city’s grime melted away and a magnificent, expansive green space opened up. One picnic later (in view of Kew Palace), we went in search of plants.

First up the Boardwalk border, just coming into its high summer colours:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Just behind one of the borders is the Hive, an installation celebrating and investigating the role of bees and it sits within the treeline just off the boardwalk. It’s an intriguing man-made construction among all the greenery. A pathway led towards this mysterious object, up through a wildflower meadow that’s humming with bees. The whole structure is connected to real-time bee activity – it’s a multi-sensory experience for humans to connect with the amazing activity of bees. You’d perhaps think that a metal structure  would seem heavy and incongruous against the plants and trees, but it’s light and delicate, and quite beautiful.

From the Kew website (

The Hive is the design of UK based artist Wolfgang Buttress. It was originally created as the centrepiece of the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo. It is constructed from around 170,000 parts including thousands of pieces of aluminium, which catch the changing sunlight. There are 1,000 LED lights dotted around its core which glow and fade, while a unique soundtrack hums in response to the activity of real bees in a beehive behind the scenes at Kew“.

Entering the Hive challenged my vertigo even though it’s not especially high up. But it’s constructed from glass and metal so although it feels solid, you can see through the ‘walls’ and (much more unsettling) the floor. But the experience is well worth that shot of fear. The complex honeycomb structure of a beehive is visible through the glass floor but the circle at the centre of the floor is clear revealing the ground below and if you stand on it, you’ll look up through the opening in the roof. It was fascinating to watch people’s reactions. While lots of people peered down into this ‘hole’ the adults seemed to avoid walking over it, although one could plainly see it was safe. Some children skirted around the edge, avoiding stepping into the clear section but a couple danced on it and others laid down on their bellies peering below. I didn’t see any child laying on their back looking up at the sky. The elevation of the Hive means the views over trees into the city  are spectacular.

The heat of the day brought out the fragrance of nearby flowering lime trees, making the Hive smell of honey. LED lights gently glowed in reaction to activity from beehives, and an electronic soundtrack, also connected to bee activity, faded in and out. There’s a lot going on but it doesn’t feel hectic, just alive.

You can walk underneath the Hive too, which gives a very different perspective:

The Hive is open until November 2017.


Moving on to the Princess of Wales Conservatory for the desert plants:


Into the Waterlily House

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And the Palm House:

And finally the inevitable… (gluten free and all)


And then by way of farewell at the Embankment, a perfect finale:





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s