We have escaped the late summer in New Cairo and retreated to the cool of London in October – en route, it has to be said, to the citrus groves of Sicily. They, of course, will be another story.
As usual, one of our first diversions in London was to Kew Gardens… and here we came across a fabulous installation that is as much about engineering as art, education as creative inspiration, vibration as melody.
The Hive is a 17 metre-high structure made of aluminium and glass, inspired by a most unusual artist’s muse: the honeybee. It isn’t exactly a replica of a hive, but rather an installation that takes the hive as its essential frame of reference.
First seen at the Milan Expo last year, the Hive was relocated to Kew to underline a key message that is central to the Botanic Garden’s mission: pollinators are vital to our food supplies across the world, and they are in trouble for a number of reasons from climate change to the over-use of pesticides.
Artist Wolfgang Buttress worked with a team of architects and engineers to construct the Hive from aluminium, with a glass floor dividing the structure into two storeys. You begin by visiting the lower section to get a general idea of the project, then walk up a ramp to enter the hive itself, rather as if you were a guest in the bees’ home.
What turns the visit into a compelling immersive experience is the connection with the inner workings of a real beehive in Kew Gardens. Using accelerometers placed inside the hive, it is possible to relay the vibrational signals that are constantly transmitted by the bees straight into the installation. And bees, we learned, always hum (vibrate) in the key of C!*
This fascinated me: at a yoga retreat in July, we did all of our asanas (physical postures) accompanied by a recording of “Omm” – again, in C. According to the Indian sages (rishis), this is the primeval sound dating back to the beginning of creation, and it appears to be one that bees have stayed loyal to in all their 120 million-year existence. How mind-blowing is that!
In harmony with the bees’ own vibrations, a group of musicians created a soundscape to mirror the ebb and flow of energy within the hive, and this combination is what you hear once inside the installation.
In addition to the soundscape, the Hive features almost 900 LED lights, which flicker and surge according to the energy emitted by the bees. These were not so effective on the sunny afternoon when we visited, but at dusk they must make the experience amazing.
The purpose of the installation is not simply to astonish, of course, but rather to help us understand the reality of our dependence on pollinators, and to consider what we can do to help them thrive. The UK, for example, is home to about 275 species of bee. They in turn need a diverse biosphere in which to live – yet Britain has lost over 95% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s.
The team at Kew has therefore planted the embankment surrounding the Hive with wild flowers, while also providing information panels to explain their importance. The area of herbaceous borders featuring pollinator-friendly flowers has also been increased. Here we found members of the daisy (Compositae) family – Echinacea “White Swan” and Rudbeckias, for example, exuberantly blooming among a rich tapestry of flowering plants and grasses.
And how they attracted the insects!
*Pioneering research into the vibrational patterns of bees is being carried out by Dr Martin Bencsik at the UK’s Nottingham Trent University, who worked with Wolfgang Buttress on this project.