The bees that make music

Stuff you probably know: bees pollinate a third of everything we eat and play a vital role in sustaining the planet’s ecosystems.

Stuff you probably don’t know: bees are probably deaf yet they buzz in the key of C.

In December I found myself crouched under the astronomical observatory at Nottingham Trent University listening to a colony of bees. In the winter they are still very active chewing and munching on the honey comb and walking around. Imagine the sound of an old vinyl record. But what I can hear is very different to what the bee would hear.

I say hear but I should have written feel. Bees are thought to have no ear drum so are probably deaf. But they can still communicate; not with sounds, but through vibrations, two very different things.

They use their legs to communicate and these vibrations have been picked up by Dr Martin Bencsik through the use of accelerometers embedded in the honey comb; tiny sensors about 1cm cubed that aren’t affected like normal microphones are by the wax and honey they are eventually covered in.

The vibrations have also been picked up by award winning artist Wolfgang Buttress.  He used them for his Hive Installation as the UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo in 2015, the theme was Feeding the Planet. It’s now the first UK Pavilion to be reused and brought back to Britain and you can see it at Kew Gardens. Science is brought together with art, design, and the environment.

The collaboration between academic and artist continued as the pair discovered that bees buzz in the key of C. The result was a set at Glastonbury and their concerts continue.

I visited both of them in Nottingham to discover more about bee communications and experience a concert with the live buzz of 40,000 bees.

Here’s my report for Farming Today on Radio 4.

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