I'm Suus Agnes, a comics artist, science communicator, beekeeper, and gardener. AMA!

Suus Agnes
Feb 27, 2018

I’m an author-illustrator with a background in science communication, beekeeping, and gardening. I have travelled to remote places in Russia to collect stories about the many ways people connect to nature in times of climate change and environmental turbulence. Beekeeping to me means sustaining pollinator populations, including honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees and beyond. I am developing a new comics series MOSS to inspire curiosity and interest in everyday nature, like insects, mosses, lichens, and fungi. AMA!

Excerpt from MOSS (on Patreon)

Excerpt from Connect: Illustrated interviews from the Changing Russian Wilderness.

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While you were in Russia, did you encounter any interesting local folklore or mythology about bees and/or beekeeping? 

Mar 2, 7:55PM EST0

Great question!

I encountered a lot of beautiful Russian folklore, for example, about forests and mushrooms, but sadly nothing bee-specific. That's not to say it doesn't exist!

However, I did learn some interesting things about bees in Russia. I've learned about Russian honeybees, a strain of bees that is thought to be important for the survival of bees. One of the current big threats to honeybees is the varroa mite - a deadly parasitic mite that invades hives. But Russian honeybees (from the east) have been exposed to these mites for more than 100 years, and they are a lot more resistant to these mites than other honeybees. So, some queen breeders are now breeding Russian queen bees (e.g. in America) in the hope of helping the bees to overcome the varroa threat. It's hard to get "pure" Russian queens, but even Russian hybrids might be an important step in the right direction.

Last edited @ Mar 3, 5:38PM EST.
Mar 3, 5:36PM EST1

That is really interesting! I only have a passing knowledge of apiculture (my mother had bees once on her farm and I took part in a honey harvest one year) so the bit about Russian honeybees' resistance to varroa mites is new to me and neat to know. Thank you for sharing!

Mar 3, 5:57PM EST0

Do you think gardening can be taken as a full time career ever?

Mar 2, 9:47AM EST0

I think it is possible, but it depends on the climate where you live and also the type of gardening. Usually most gardening activities slow down in winter, but there are ways to extend the seasons, by growing vegetables in (heated) glasshouses and by focusing on other tasks like general property maintenance. 

Mar 3, 5:44PM EST0
How much world building and research did/are you doing for Moss series?
Mar 1, 4:38PM EST0

MOSS is a new project, so I'm currently researching a lot about various ecosystem interactions and organisms that you may encounter on a daily basis in many places.

I'm interested in evolution (for example, moss is very ancient; they were some of the earliest plants that appeared more than 300 million years ago); lifecycles; and intricate (visual) details when you look at small life forms in close-up. 

Another aspect I'm focusing on is how these life forms relate to humans. I'm interested in both desired and undesired biodiversity. For example, fungi like moulds are generally regarded as 'bad'. I'd like to shine a light on such lives and their complexities and ecological functions, to open up subtle, alternative perspectives. 

Last edited @ Mar 4, 4:45AM EST.
Mar 3, 6:05PM EST0
What are your main non-comic book related artistic influences? How did their techniques touch your approach to Moss?
Mar 1, 11:31AM EST0

I think my artistic influences are rather subconscious, so it's hard for me to say how exactly they touch my approach to MOSS.

In general, my illustration style is often 2D, inspired by illuminated medieval manuscript art. I'm also inspired by the expressionist style of early 20th century woodcuts. I love how both these art forms depict human faces. Somehow they seem abstract yet evocative; nondescript yet bursting with emotion. 

Japanese anime has also taught me many things about creating wondrous worlds and creatures, with intricate colours and details.

Mar 3, 6:30PM EST0
As an artist, what is one thing that you wish that readers knew what it is to be a comics artist?
Mar 1, 8:55AM EST0

How much time it takes to make comics! From the spark of an idea, to the research process, to writing, drawing, editing, editing, editing...

Mar 3, 6:33PM EST0

Why are colonies of Honey Bees dying off?  What can be done to help conserve their populations?

Mar 1, 12:02AM EST0

Those are difficult questions! Honeybees suffer from various environmental threats, from the cocktail of pesticides they are exposed to, to the parasitic varroa mite that invades their hives. There is not one single definitive known answer or reason for why they are struggling. It often comes down to compromised immune systems caused by the various threats, which makes the bees more susceptible to diseases and less efficient in doing their jobs, making survival harder.

In general, growing bee-friendly flowers is an effective way of supporting honeybees, to make sure they have enough pollen and nectar to strenghten them. Also, don't use poisonous sprays and the like, and encourage others to do the same. For those who keep bees; look out for beekeepers and queen breeders who focus on breeding varroa resistant queen bees.

Mar 3, 6:45PM EST0
At what point did you realize that you wanted to be a beekeper?
Feb 28, 8:15AM EST0

I became aware that honeybees are in trouble and that they provide crucial ecosystem services, like crop pollination. 

So, I wanted to learn more about the mysterious bees and see if and how I could help. After a friend informed me of a local beekeeping course, I woke up the next day thinking: yes, I'm gonna do it.

Feb 28, 3:29PM EST0
How was your perception of the world before and after being in the beekeper business?
Feb 28, 6:25AM EST0

Before: A vague awareness that bees are important to people.

After: A more detailed understanding of the interconnectedness of living things, including plants, animals, humans...

Also, I have gained a better understanding of the economic importance of honeybees, and of the threats that they are facing. Furthermore, now I realise that if we are concerned with pollination, it's also useful to look beyond the honeybee since there are many other insect pollinators. Bumblebees, solitary bees and hoverflies are some examples.

Ps. Even though I am very aware of the beekeeper business and have been educated about it, I'm not commercially involved. My beekeeping activities take place on a backyard scale and (partly) fulfill research purposes.

Feb 28, 3:23PM EST0
Do you think you can make people aware of the life of insects through your comic books?
Feb 28, 1:33AM EST0

Yes! To a degree. I love being able to zoom in on small life forms through comics, and show intricate interactions in fine detail; things that might easily be overlooked when you're just passing by.

For example, there is so much involved in insect-flower interactions that people depend on for their food.  Unless you stand still and inform yourself, all these interesting connections are likely to remain unnoticed. Comics about these topics can help you notice. 

Yet comics are certainly not the only way! In order to make people aware of insect life through comics, there must be an interest in reading comics to begin with...

Feb 28, 3:14PM EST0
Exactly, how do you link the environment to comic books?
Feb 28, 12:58AM EST0

The environment is the topic, or the setting, of many of my narratives. Comics are the medium, the format I choose to tell the stories.

To me, comics are suitable for talking about almost any topic. I am hugely inspired by non-fiction works like journalism comics, too, that show how comics can be used for talking about more serious or factual content. 

Precisely because comics combine visuals and words, it allows me to depict plants, animals, elements; to create moods, to show (and interpret) mechanisms, interactions, while intensifying factual and emotive content through words.

Feb 28, 3:04PM EST0
What about gardening is interesting to you?
Feb 27, 10:47PM EST0

I'm interested in growing my own food and working towards a more self-sufficient lifestyle.

Also, learning about gardening means learning about ecosystems. It is a way of getting to know the plants and their rootsystems, the soil, fungi and bacteria, the invertebrates... on a very personal, tactile level, but also stimulating to dive into the books to learn more; to understand better.

Feb 28, 2:59PM EST0
What artist inspired your style of art?
Feb 27, 8:31PM EST0

I'm influenced by many people and styles! Here are is an eclectic mix of examples.

The forest folk tale illustrations by Ivan Bilibin; the style of Soviet children's books; German expressionism; Persian miniature paintings; the monsters of Hieronymus Bosch...

Feb 28, 2:45PM EST0
What made you want to study beekeeping?
Feb 27, 7:24PM EST0

Curiosity about the mysterious bees, and an interest to support pollinator populations!

Beekeeping is one of the many attempts to try to understand the world around me better.

Feb 28, 2:37PM EST0
Have you tried submitting your work to Webtoons?
Feb 27, 6:13PM EST0

Nope! Should I? :-)

Feb 28, 2:35PM EST0
What tools are you using to create your illustrations?
Feb 27, 8:22AM EST0

I mainly use shellac ink (made from beetles!) and calligraphy ink, but I like to experiment with other mediums from time to time, including collages, pastels, and linocut. 

I'm also planning to make my own pigment from collected materials to add a new layer of visually representing an environment.

Feb 27, 3:47PM EST0
How do you balance your work and hobbies effectively?
Feb 27, 7:49AM EST0

I don't really! the line between work and hobby can be blurry sometimes. But, so far, it's a good thing.

Feb 27, 3:49PM EST1
Are you based in Russia? What is the state of climate change awareness there?
Feb 27, 7:44AM EST0

I travelled to Russia for an artist residency in Saint Petersburg last year. I spent three months in Russia, and travelled to various rural and remote places to speak to people about their connection with nature and how it has changed over time. I spoke to firefighters, beekeepers, village people, and (Arctic) scientists. Among these people there was an awareness of environmental changes, but, it's hard for me to make a broader statement about the general state of climate change awareness in this large country. As for geographical representation - I only spent time in West Russia, and talked to people digitally who worked in the arctic tundra. So my work represents just a miniscule part of Russia!

Feb 27, 3:42PM EST0
How long have you been beekeping? How many bees do you currently have?
Feb 27, 7:40AM EST0

I started a beekeeping course in 2012, and had my first hive in 2013. As I elaborate below, I have since kept two bumblebee "hives" (nests) and I am currently building thirty insect hotels to attract e.g. solitary bees such as the leafcutter bee! So, I'm a backyard beekeeper in a broad sense, and for research purposes: the insect hotels are part of my PhD research.  

Feb 27, 3:32PM EST0
Do you create all artwork for Moss or do you have separate artists for pencil, ink background, layout and wording?
Feb 27, 12:56AM EST0

It's all me. :-) 

Feb 27, 2:15AM EST0
Why did you become so involved with nature issues?
Feb 26, 8:52PM EST0

While many environmental crises are influenced by humans —climate change, mass extinctions environmental destruction— there is still a persistent perception that people are separate from nature. This seems to cry out for new ways to think about human relations with the rest of the earth.

To me, art and literature are powerful avenues for exploring ways to relate, to connect, to spread an idea.

Of course, there are also many other ways to do so!

Last edited @ Feb 27, 2:36AM EST.
Feb 27, 2:36AM EST0
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