A 1993 Fiesta Coronation dress features pollinator insects bees throughout the wardrobe.
A 1993 Fiesta Coronation dress features bees throughout the design. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Witte Museum wants Texans to look at pollinators with fresh eyes.

On Friday, the museum opens its new exhibition on pollinators, titled The Birds and the Bees: Pollinators in Nature, Science and Culture.

“When we started thinking about doing something with pollinators, it gave us an opportunity to see how pollinators are represented in our culture – not only for their beauty but for symbolic meaning,” said Amy Fulkerson, the museum’s chief curator. “In a lot of cultures, butterflies signify rebirth and renewal. But it’s something that people have been looking at and representing throughout time.”

The train of this 1993 dress worn by Fiesta royalty is embroidered with bees. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The first thing visitors to the exhibition see is a Fiesta coronation gown from 1993 – a rich purple dress with gold bees embroidered on the skirt and embellishing the sparkling cape trailing behind. Fulkerson explained that the bees were a nod to the Napoleonic empire. Napoleon Bonaparte went back to the early Frankish kings to find icon inspiration, using images of bees as his emblem, she said.

Pointing to the bees on the train’s intricate design, Fulkerson said, “There’s a large number of Swarovski crystals, as well as golden beads. We’ve got sequins, lamé, rhinestones.”

“It’s a fun way to think about bees as pollinators,” she added.

And that’s the point of The Birds and the Bees exhibition – to get people to think about pollinators in a different way. That’s why Fulkerson chose to include landscape paintings of lush Texas countrysides in the natural history museum’s exhibit.

“These beautiful landscapes wouldn’t exist without the pollinators,” she said. “The shape, color, and perfume of the plant all co-evolved with the pollinators. It all has a purpose.”

Paintings by Texas artists Julian Onderdonk, José Arpa, and Porfirio Salinas line the walls. Along with art, the exhibition shows pollinator-inspired pieces such as a 1980s evening gown with a butterfly design stitched on the front and a green velvet settee shaped like a butterfly’s wings.

This fossil of a magnolia leaf is between 113 million and 100 million years old. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The exhibition also includes more practical reminders of pollinators’ impact on the world. There’s a section explaining how tiny flies, called chocolate midges, are essential to pollinating cacao flowers and therefore responsible for the world’s chocolate supply. A fossil dating back to 113 million to 100 million years ago holds a magnolia leaf, before bees and butterflies evolved. Beetles were responsible for pollinating magnolia trees all those years ago, Fulkerson said, and they still are the main pollinator of those trees today.

“This is Texas,” Fulkerson said, gesturing at the exhibition. “From millions of years ago to where we are today, it’s all about the Texas landscape and the things we use in our daily lives, inspired by these pollinators.”

The exhibit will include ways for Texans to help pollinators, such as planting native species of trees, shrubs, and flowers.

“Even in an urban environment, there’s a lot we can do to aid the pollinators,” Fulkerson said.

A painting of a swallowtail butterfly is featured at <i> The Birds and the Bees: Pollinators in Nature, Science and Culture. </I>
A painting of a swallowtail butterfly is featured in The Birds and the Bees: Pollinators in Nature, Science and Culture. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Just one milkweed plant in a pot outside your house could help monarch butterflies, who lay their eggs on milkweed plants, Fulkerson said. “The Birds and the Bees” is opening at the beginning of monarch migration season.

“It’s perfect timing,” she said. “With the monarch migration, people are thinking about what’s going on and what’s happening in the environment.”

The exhibition opens Friday at 10 a.m. Admission is included with a regular museum ticket.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.