PollinationOlder Brother and Eli's Bees
Not only are bees integral to the ecosystem, they are also one of its more vulnerable parts, sensitive to changes in temperature and environment.
The Santa Monica Mountains of California – known for their chaparral ecosystem, dramatic hiking trails, and Pacific coastline – are also home to a multitude of bees. And not just any bees – bees that lend a hand in dyeing clothes. As part of his ongoing investigation into natural, regenerative materials, Max Kingery of LA clothing line Olderbrother decided to explore pollen as the principal natural dye for the brand’s S/S 2022 collection, ‘Pollination’. He enlisted the help of Eli Lichter-Marck of Eli’s Bees, a company that keeps around 350 to 450 hives throughout Topanga, Malibu Canyon, Zuma Canyon and Mulholland Highway. “For the last three years, I’ve used everything from mushrooms to kelp to different fermentation processes like scoby – all these things that seem kind of avant garde, but actually pose real solutions in terms of regenerative materials in the making process,” says Kingery. “Working with pollen has been the most involved, local, and meaningful process we’ve done. It’s also been very lovely. Last winter, we were working with ferments, and it was pretty stinky at our operation. Now there’s just this overarching pleasant smell of pollen and liveliness. It’s very refreshing,” he smiles.
The collaboration was a first for Kingery and Lichter-Marck, both of whom live in Topanga, surrounded by the landscape they now work from. “When we decided to try this, we knew it was an experiment,” says Lichter-Marck. “I’d never collected pollen at this scale before, as I usually produce honey, and Max had never worked directly from the farm to the garment. There was some uncertainty to that. For one thing, when we first collected the pollen, we were completely surprised by the colour. We imagined we’d get a golden yellow, which Max had envisaged for the clothes, and suddenly the bees were bringing in purple, red, and orange pollen granules. We were like, ‘Oh my god is this even going to be the colour we thought it would be?’” Once the granules were processed into a substrate, it did result in the expected colour, but far richer and more vivid than previous tests had allowed for, so the recipe was adjusted.
The pollen was collected principally in the month of April, when the chaparral landscape goes into overdrive, with ceanothus, black sage, and laurel sumac producing an abundance of blooms. Screens were placed in the hives that allow the bees to pass through while knocking some of the pollen nodules they’ve gathered out from the sacks on their legs. “The hive then notices they have half as much pollen as before, so they increase the number of bees gathering pollen,” says Lichter-Marck. “After a week or two of having the pollen trap on, the yield of the hive actually increases.”
The idea to investigate pollen came out from Kingery’s deep love and understanding of the landscape. “For four years now, I’ve been obsessed with the plant life of the Santa Monica mountains,” says Kingery. “I’ve been restoring my own backyard, removing invasive grass and planting native species from the local ecosystem. As part of that, I’ve been paying close attention to pollinators. It has been deeply meaningful working with pollen and merging these different interests. I hope the collection encourages people to pay attention to the intricacies of the ecosystem here. Once you gain an understanding of it, you can uncover the deep beauty of this system, and of our landscape, so much more.”
“It’s like something I wrote to one of my landowners recently,” says Lichter-Marck. “He asked me why we should keep bees, and I wrote that bees are like a porthole into appreciating a landscape. They act as this connection to the ecosystem, which I think is magical and spiritual. To me, working with bees feels like art. No one else gets to see it; it’s just between me and them. The smell and the colours, the spending time outside – it’s all really spiritual.”
Not only are bees integral to the ecosystem, they are also one of its more vulnerable parts, sensitive to changes in temperature and environment. “We live in a really diverse environment,” says Lichter-Marck. “There’s the mountains, the coast, the fog and winds that come off the ocean, the heat of the valley, and recently, there are areas that burn or don’t burn. There was a big fire in Malibu in 2018 where 100 beehives burned up. It was tragic. I recovered and kept going, and I’ve learned that those setbacks happen continuously. It’s so vital we create an awareness of the importance of our pollinating insects. When people gain this understanding, they will be motivated to care for bees’ health, which will result in the protection of the whole ecosystem.”
Pollen provides the dye for many of the Olderbrother garments, but the collection goes beyond just the aesthetic, prompting wearers to consider the landscape they are in, and to explore it more deeply: work jackets have sleeves reinforced in golden beeswax, intended for garden work, and trousers have the same treatment to aid hiking through brush. “My goal is to spark curiosity and interest through beauty,” says Kingery. “Art, aesthetics, creation – they are all separate, but when they’re joined together in the same vehicle for someone to experience them, I find that to be the most thought-provoking and inspirational.” Lichter-Marck agrees: “It’s so rewarding to see pollen used in this way. And to allow people to appreciate it for what it is: it’s a building block of nature, and a beautiful thing of itself.”
- Words: Ollie Horne
- Photos: Justin Chung