The Secret Life of Bees


Anyone It’s not every day that you get a chance to experience the private life of a honey bee, but I’m doing just that. The Hive, at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, has been designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress to represent the honeycomb structure of a real beehive.

Approaching through the trees, I arrive at a small hillock in a clearing and suddenly there it is: a seventeen metre tall lattice of aluminium threads glinting in the sunshine. To be honest, from here it looks less like a beehive and more like a giant, unruly nest, but as I get closer the sculpture reveals a more orderly shape. Steps spiral gently to the entrance, bordered on each side by waist-high wildflower borders where I am reassured to see bees foraging on pinkish-purple foxgloves, glowing white daisies and golden buttercups. Although the purpose of this installation is stated as ‘a visual symbol of the pollinators’ role in feeding the planet and the challenges facing bees today’, the site has clearly been designed with the interests of bees, as well as humans, in mind. Honeybees pollinate around 30% of the food we eat, and as their numbers have declined in recent years, they need all the help they can get. And the honeybees are not alone here, Kew Gardens has reported ten species, including bumblebees, red mason bees and carder bees, with an estimated 50,000 bees overall.

As I reach the top of the stairs, a low hum drifts from the Hive, a musical sound, but otherworldly, like whale song. Inside, I look up through the spidery, metallic framework to the blue sky beyond. A thousand LED lights, attached to the flimsy strands, flicker on and off at seemingly random intervals. This sound and light show was inspired by scientific research into life within a beehive and how these small, but vital, creatures communicate. Elsewhere within the estate is a real beehive, set up with tiny microchips know as accelerometers. These detect the movements and vibrations within the hive as the bees ‘talk’ to each other and translate them into electrical impulses which set off individual lights around the Hive. The same applies to the ‘soundscape’, which consists of single notes of a piano, violin or other instrument. These so-called ‘noise-gates’ are triggered by the motion of busy bees, making up a gentle chorus, all in the same key.

In the early morning, when the pollinators are still drowsy, these lights and sounds are rather subdued, but become more animated as the hive livens up. Individuals return from foraging trips and wiggle their abdomens to indicate the location of food supplies, drones dart in and out, worker bees bustle around their queen. By mid-afternoon all those vibrations stir a continuous sound and light performance in the artificial Hive.

The whole effect is hypnotic and I find it hard to drag myself away. This beautiful fusion of art and science provides food for thought. How dreadful would it be if the Hive fell silent and the lights went out?

I follow the winding path down through the wildflower meadow and promise myself not to take the bees for granted. There are simple things I can do to help: leave the lawn a little longer, let the clover, yarrow and daisies sprout where they may, and refuse those toxic pesticides. And I’ll leave some of that infuriating ivy for winter foraging.

In the American state of Idaho, 19 August has been officially proclaimed Honey Bee Day, but perhaps we need to consider the bee every day.