An ongoing search for UK bumblebee sounds.
For some time now, I've been developing my own stereo and multichannel methods for recording bumblebees.
The first was tested without preparation in May 2017, shortly after discovering early and tree bumblebees foraging on an overgrown cotoneaster. Using old clothes pegs, I attached a couple of low-profile microphones to the plant’s branches, hoping to capture proximate flight activity. The recording was a success, and was later featured on BBC Radio 4.
Its positive reception spurred the development of a second, more complex approach utilising a custom-built device which I have lovingly dubbed the 'Bumble-ator'. Featuring a tiny, omnidirectional microphone mounted on the end of a stainless steel rod, this handheld solution allows me to track bees accurately at a distance of 5cm or less as they move from plant-to-plant. Stereo ambience is simultaneously captured using a spaced pair of omnidirectional microphones mounted on a nearby tripod; when all three channels are mixed, the result is a highly-detailed, proximate perspective of the recorded bumblebee(s) framed within the naturally-occurring soundscape.
These recording methods and their variants underpin much of my fieldwork for Bumble: a long-term, conservation-driven search for UK bumblebee sounds. My ambition with the project is to record as many UK species as possible; ideally over 15 of the extant 25, including the recently reintroduced Bombus subterraneus.
Many of the species I’m searching for have suffered serious declines throughout the UK, primarily due to the destruction of around 97% of their favoured, ancient wildflower habitat. Forage and nest sites have been replaced with grasses for livestock and crop-based monocultures. Compounding this problem are the pesticides used to treat these monocultures (in particular, neonicotinoids) which have been shown to affect bees' ability to forage and navigate. Clearly, steps need to be taken to safeguard bumblebees.
Much of the work to raise awareness of their plight is being undertaken by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, of which I am a member.
“What a terrific idea, and the recordings are outstanding. Your work certainly provides a fine way to appreciate variation and nuance (and simple beauty) in the sounds of their buzzing.”
— Thor Hanson, award-winning biologist and author of Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees
The project has other, complementary strands which should develop as time progresses.
I'm painstakingly analysing and documenting each recording, with a view to producing supplementary materials that may be of use to scientists and researchers: for example, understanding the precise frequencies produced by the insects in flight, and whether this is related to size, species or both in varying proportions.
Recordings to date have also been added to a dedicated Google Map (see below). Listeners can navigate through the project by clicking/tapping each pin and following the link to the relevant entry. In the future, I hope to modify this map to incorporate layers of technical and conservation-focused metadata, which should provide additional context.
In addition, I have ideas about working recordings of particularly vulnerable species into a large-scale, electroacoustic composition as part of my ongoing PhD research at the University of Birmingham. Using audio programming languages to break down and intensively process sonic material, it should be possible to explore the bumblebees’ audible world in microscopic detail, presenting finished material through multichannel loudspeaker systems.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy following my search for the sound of our most endearing pollinator.
This project would not be possible without the very kind, ongoing assistance of Bumblebee Conservation Trust staff. I'm especially grateful to Darryl Cox for ID and scientific assistance, as well as Helen King and Barnaby Smith, who have patiently listened to my ideas and offered valuable advice from the outset.
Numerous staff members and volunteers at some of the UK's most beautiful gardens, historic buildings and nature reserves have also assisted with the project, often granting permission to record out of hours, or in locations inaccessible to the general public. I have thanked them, where relevant, within each project entry.
BBCT logo used with permission of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. All rights reserved.