What’s the buzz at the front door?

Capturing bees in a hive. Photo Mary Gardner

Capturing wild bees in a hive. Photo Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner

The soundscape changed. Startled, I looked up from my book. For weeks, I’ve listened to the wind freshening and soughing around the house. But this was a new deep hum, close, at the front door. Cautiously, I stepped outside and stood at the edge of a cloud of honey bees.

Against the wind, hundreds were converging on the old cabinet. The buzz had some quality I couldn’t name. Was this the sound of one queen bee satisfied, amplified through the hundreds of workers herding together in their new pozzie?

Over the next few hours, a keen beekeeper introduced frames and a box. The swarm settled into the new structure and by evening all were still. The beekeeper took away a silent box. A buzz of questions remained with me.

Behind the clutter of human noise, there is the sound of ‘natural quiet’. We’re always hearing it but not often listening. This soundtrack is full of elements such as rain, wind and tree rustle. Voices such as birds, bats, dogs, mice and insects. Bees themselves are involved in a daily song-and-dance routine. For generations, beekeepers heard something of this.

Musical text

In 1609, George Butler wrote a UK best-seller about beekeeping. He proved the hives were led not by a king bee but a queen. He also interpreted the different sounds of bees as a musical text. But not until the 1940s when Eddie Woods put a microphone into his hives did anyone guess at the extent of the opera in the apiary.

Woods, a sound engineer with the BBC, analysed print-outs of these recordings. He realised the hive as a whole ‘sang out’ in different ways if they were disturbed or if they were about to swarm. He heard queens ‘piping’ and ‘quacking’. He patented a monitoring device called an apidictor, which alerts beekeepers that their bees were planning to abandon their current home.

In 1962, Adrian Wenner described his soundtracks of bee dances. The famous wag-tail movements were accompanied by solo ‘songs’ with rhythmic patterns. The number and timing of the repeats correlated to the distance to a source of food. The dance itself set the angle of the food source in relation to that of overhead sun.

Now, specialists at the University of Montana are developing ‘smart hives’. Their hive technology listens to many details. They can ‘hear’ different purebred species of bees and find that hybrids between Africanised and European bees sound different. They also can ‘hear’ the response of a hive to different kinds of poisons as well as invasions by other insects and even viruses. These chorus numbers prompt texts sent to the mobile phone of the beekeeper.

Puzzling ‘voice’

For all we are learning about these performances, we’re still unsure what exactly produces a bee’s ‘voice’. Is it the flicking of wings, the way air is pushed through its body out of sets of holes under the wings, some mix of both or something else altogether?

My query buzzes away on the brisk wind still blowing here. I stretch. At about 3,500 metres above me, winds of the other atmospheric layers race along carrying billions of living insects and spiders. Bees are sometimes among them. All rushing somewhere else. There are also smaller things up there – bacteria, dust, sea salt and other particles. These can trigger the building of ice balls in the clouds. The ‘seeds’ make clouds condense and rain fall. It’s so dry down here. We could use a good soaking.

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