September 29, 2022

Learning Curve


Leon Kluge created the magnificent Living Beehive art installation at the Durban Botanic Gardens to help educate local children on the importance of water conservation.

The brainchild of the National Biodiversity Institute of South Africa and designed by Leon Kluge, the Living Beehive art installation was created to showcase South Africa’s rich blend of natural, cultural and mineral wealth at the COP 17 congress that took place in Durban in 2011. The client’s brief was to create an installation that was both garden and sculpture, and that portrayed the importance of water conservation.  It also needed to act as a ‘classroom’ for children, and provide a unique experience for visitors walking through the green space.

The Design

The dome-shaped design was based on traditional Zulu huts, but with a high technology steel frame rather than wood. The living roof was planted with local grassland fauna that occurs only on the highlands of the Kwazulu Natal Drakensberg, which is the water catchment area for the city of Durban.

Visitors step inside the beehive onto a steel see-through grid, where water trickles underfoot and plants rise up from the ground. Overhead plants hang from circular planter tubes and creepers cascade down to create a chandelier of foliage. These vertical gardens are planted with rare local cliff-hanging plants, seldom seen by the public, showcasing the living cliffs of Kwazulu Natal. The rivers here are the source of freshwater for Durban. As water is a constant obstacle and of short supply for the city, the purpose of the living beehive design was to teach school children the importance of conserving water, and educate them about the journey that water takes to finally flow from their home taps.

Following on from the vertical gardens there is a lawned area in the middle of the beehive, a large open space with two openings either side to provide sunlight and a breeze. This area doubles up as a classroom where children can sit, surrounded by the elements that they are taught about.



As this was a one-off project, finding materials was a challenge. The walkway was built from steel mesh, while the vertical walls included a steel frame with two layers of a woven polyester material fastened to it. Pockets were cut into the material, the plant was placed inside and then the material was sewn shut again.

The outer layer of the beehive also used a woven polyester material, but of a much thicker grade, here seeds were sown into it and water-retaining gel poured between. The gel was watered to give the seeds a reserve of water for when the sprayers didn’t turn on. A rotating ladder attached to the top and on a track at the bottom was added so that maintenance could be carried out more efficiently.

The inside seating area was built from a mix of lawn and paving. As some areas inside were too dark, grow lights needed to be introduced to provide a better quality of light to the plants.


The short timescale was a challenge in itself, but added to that there were massive storms during installation, and the rip winds played havoc with planting schedules and the roof.

All of the water used in the irrigation of the roof and vertical walls had to be collected below ground and recycled to be used in the garden again, to make it as water conserving as possible.

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