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An ongoing search for the sounds of the UK's bumblebee species.



‘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


 

 

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 bumblebee workers — Bombus pratorum; hypnorum — foraging in an abandoned, north Bristol parking space overgrown with cotoneaster; lacking my usual audio gear, I quickly attached a couple of low-profile microphones directly to the plant using clothes pegs, hoping to capture the bees' proximate flight activity against the suburban ambience.

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 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.


 
 

Bumble developed out of my experiences using both recording methods and their variants in the field. It's an ongoing, long-term project, consisting of a series of location-based recordings with interwoven, narrative voice-overs. Although the underlying goal is to record bumblebees, other species sometimes make an appearance. This is something I particularly enjoy; the project is as much about 'search' or 'process' as it is about outcome, and when other characters or elements make an entry, it adds to the story.

Bumblebees — which, along with other pollinators, contribute an estimated £600 million (2015) to the UK economy — have suffered serious, long-term declines throughout the UK. The primary reason for this has been the destruction of around 97% of their favoured, ancient wildflower habitat, resulting in a loss of the vast majority of available forage and nest sites. These have largely been replaced with grasses for livestock and crop-based monocultures. Pesticides used to treat these monocultures (in particular, neonicotinoids) have been shown to affect bees' ability to forage and navigate. Clearly, urgent steps need to be taken to safeguard the genus. Much of the work to aid bumblebees in the UK and raise awareness of their plight is being undertaken by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, of which I am a member.

My ambition with Bumble is to record all 25 UK bumblebee species, including the recently reintroduced Bombus subterraneus. This is a huge challenge and could take years, but I'm determined to get there.


 

A breakdown of bumblebee species recorded to date, further subdivided into queen, worker and male. Tap/hover for numbers. All data reflects successfully recorded instances only; general observations are not included. Approximate rate of success (i.e. good-quality sound capture) in the field is <5%. Updated 21.10.2018.
 

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. I also have ideas about digital creative works, employing audio programming languages to break down the bees' sonic material and project it within a multichannel loudspeaker setup, creating my own, virtual wildflower patches.

As with all of my work, Bumble is best enjoyed in quiet moments, away from noise and ideally with a good-quality loudspeaker system or pair of headphones/earbuds.

Recordings to date have been added to a dedicated Google Map, embedded at the top of this page. It's possible to navigate through the project geographically by clicking/tapping each pin and following the link to the relevant project 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 the meantime, I hope you enjoy following my search for the sound of our most endearing pollinator.

MF


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 generously giving up his time to assist with identification as well as offering expert scientific advice on species, and Helen King for helping me connect with the right folks and patiently listening to my ideas.

I'm also greatly indebted to numerous staff members and volunteers at some of the UK's most beautiful gardens, historic buildings and nature reserves, who have assisted with my work and kindly granted permission to record out of hours, or in locations not normally accessible to the general public. I have thanked them, where relevant, within each project entry.

Cover Photo: ©entomart [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons