An Audiovisual Experience Controlled By 50,000 Honeybees

There’s a sort of ongoing symphony deep within London’s Kew Gardens. The pulsing music is at turns cheerful, thrilling, and ominous; its steady thrum soothing to the point of transcendence. Technically, it’s a virtual performance: While the show is broadcast through a giant aluminium structure, the real “musicians”—around 60,000 live honey bees—are in a wooden box a short distance away.

The Hive is a five-storey, multisensory art installation in London’s Kew Gardens. Not only does it resemble a beehive in structure, but its lights and speakers are activated in real time by a living bee colony nearby. 

“The audience experience is authored by the beehive,” says designer Wolfgang Buttress, “creating an ever-evolving conversation between bee and human.” Indeed, for our continued existence as a species, it’s more imperative than ever that we understand and uphold these tiny creatures who are so quietly crucial to our survival.

Buttress, a U.K.-based artist, originally designed The Hive for the 2015 Milan Expo. The following year it was moved to Kew Gardens as a temporary exhibit, becoming a permanent feature shortly thereafter due to its massive popularity

The Hive crests a picturesque hill in the gardens’ north end, surrounded by rolling wildflower patches busy with insects. 

The 55-foot tall structure is composed of 170,000 hexagonally latticed aluminium parts, whose hollow centre forms a spherical cavern. Nearly 1,000 LED lights and 24 speakers are situated throughout the space, receiving instructions from the colony only 500 yards away. “They are (usually!) very calm and kind to work with,” wrote one Plant Officer working at Kew.

To bring The Hive to life, Buttress worked with forensic audio specialist and beehive researcher Dr. Martin Bencsik, employing specialised accelerometers—tools that measure and record vibration—to capture the bees’ activity. 

“You probably have one in your phone,” says Dr. Hauke Koch, who works on the Biological Chemistry team at Kew Gardens. “A similar device is put into the honeybee hive, onto the wax of the honeycomb, to record activity which is sent via Wi-Fi to the station next to The Hive,” he says.

Buttress says he collaborated with bands bands like Spiritualized and Sigur Ros to develop a series of musical “stems” in the key of C, so that the vibrations recorded from the hive are replicated in The Hive as not only an undulating light sequence but a droning wall of lush sound that lull and climax in unison.

The result is as enchanting to children as it is entrancing to adults. From a distance, the cluster of slender aluminium pieces meets the eye as a sort of metallic haze—only up close does a careful, patterned order reveal itself. 

A platform below the structure allows visitors to see through a translucent porthole into the cavern above. Inside The Hive, the sonic arrangement intensifies as hexagonal shapes rise and swirl around you in every direction, culminating in a circular vent atop the sculpture. 

Daytime visits allow for wildflower viewing around The Hive itself, but it’s nighttime visits that put the light show centerstage. Due to the nature of bees, however, no matter when you visit, you’ll never set foot in the same hive twice. 

In the winter, says Koch, “the honeybees make a kind of a ball in the hive, with the queen in the centre…to keep her warm. They take turns, alternating between the inside where it’s warmer and the outside where it’s a bit colder.” With less in-and-out traffic, the wintry Hive emits a tempered buzz.

Spring months are a different story. Koch says that’s when “they get more active, the queen lays eggs again, and the hive grows because you get more workers. Then it gets bigger and bigger, they start collecting honey and so on,” he says, making for a cacophonous several months.

In the summer, there might not actually be that much action at all within the hive, as the bees pivot to primarily collecting honey elsewhere, says Koch. “The reason they collect honey in summer is that they need it in the winter as a food store. They basically feed on the honey, burn the sugar and then create heat from that metabolic process,” he says.

Koch hopes that The Hive can function as a sort of educative centrepiece surrounding the importance of pollinators to the natural order. While some plants rely on wind and water for pollination, roughly 75% percent of all flowering plants and about 35% percent of the world’s food crops require animal pollination—and of course, bees are the most effective pollinators of all. 

Unfortunately, bee populations have plummeted in recent decades due to a combination of pesticides, drought, habitat loss, disease, and air pollution. Hive counts within the U.S. declined by 60 percent% between 1947 and 2008; globally, 25 percent% fewer bee species were recorded in 2015 than 1990. 

Still, experts hope we can see past these numbers. “We don’t want people fixating on specific values like percent of decline,” wrote one researcher in a recent global study. 

“Instead, we hope to bring the issue of bee diversity decline to the spotlight, to begin discussing how to address the drivers of decline.”

Indeed, The Hive is not an expression of crisis. It encourages a kinship, an understanding between humans and these tiny creatures with outsized significance. 

“You can’t just look inside a honeybee hive,” says Koch, “so the piece lets the public experience what’s normally a hidden world.”

While Buttress is happy the installation has a permanent home in London, he emphasises the universal importance of pollinator species. 

“Bees have been around for over 120 million years and are perfectly tuned to their environment,” he writes. “They can be seen as sentinels of the Earth.”

At the intersection of art, music, science, landscape, and architecture, Buttress hopes.

The Hive can instil a sense of contemplation. “I think the biggest and most important lesson that we can learn from the bees is how to be in tune with ourselves, each other and the natural world,” he writes. “We are a part of nature, and not apart from it.”

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