Composer Heloise Tunstall-Behrens loves her bees so much she’s created an opera using their ‘voices’. Naturally, we wanted to know what all the buzz was about.
I remember opening them up and finding one with frames of old wax comb on and feeling a sense of complete awe. Apparently he was a key member of the Hampstead beekeeping society.
I first experienced beekeeping myself about six years ago when I volunteered with a friend at an organic apiary in Emilia-Romagna, Italy. As part of WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), we were fed in return for helping out on everyday beekeeping tasks – checking the health of hives, moving hives around the land to pollinate specific crops, treating bees for varroa (a destructive mite), caging queens and extracting honey.
We both caught the bug and upon returning home, immediately investigated how we could possibly keep a hive in London.
We met Camilla Goddard, a beekeeper who keeps bees on the roofs of hotels around the centre of London. Adopting her as our mentor, we took several courses on beekeeping and then purchased a colony from her.
We set it up in a car park in Dalston, owned by Bootstrap Company – a community enterprise supporter. The aim was to share the life of the bees with the community in Dalston. The car park transformed into a community garden not long after.
In the four years of keeping bees we have experienced many ups and downs, which is usual in beekeeping, especially in an urban environment. Our one colony expanded to two in the second year, and then three in the third, quickly followed by zero. In the fourth year we purchased a new colony from Hampstead and have had a successful year. Beekeeping isn’t without its emotional ups and downs.
Looking after bees has transformed my life. I’ve had to learn to switch off and calm down – this is important when checking the bees, otherwise I’d be at risk of being stung!
Beekeeping has enabled me a way to access nature, and in such a raw, unadulterated way. It has opened up networks of beekeepers and a community of nature enthusiasts, eager to help make the city more hospitable to bees, with whom we worked to plant trees and sow wildflower seeds. We’ve also collaborated with artists to raise money for our hive through an art auction, and have run workshops for local school kids in the community garden.
“I remember hearing the piping and quacking sounds of the virgin queen bees before they were born, alerting the existing queen to their existence.”
In terms of work, my fascination with the social life of a honey bee colony inspired two pieces of music for voices – Be the Bee, a 10-minute opera that was performed at Tête à Tête Opera Festival, and The Swarm, a 60-minute opera which first premiered in the Sinking Shaft at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe and is soon to be shown at VAULT Festival.
I initially became interested in making music from bees after inserting a recording device into our hive during a particularly dynamic phase of swarming. I remember hearing the piping and quacking sounds of the virgin queen bees before they were born, alerting the existing queen to their existence. It was such a wondrous experience hearing those sounds for the first time. I was completely amazed and eager to find a way to share this with other people.
Honey bees and humans are similar in that their mode of existence is social. Hence throughout time, humans have used idealised forms of the social life of bees to justify any system they have in place – monarchy, capitalism etc. However, recently science has uncovered insights into the way the bees actually work naturally.
It was after reading a book by Professor Thomas Seeley called Honeybee Democracy which recounts the collective decision-making process that bees undertake when deciding on the location for a new home, that I was inspired to write The Swarm. I believe that nature has a lot to teach us about working together – and my aim is to help us listen to it.
The Swarm narrates the story of the perilous journey of migrating honey bees through a city with their queen after she is deposed by her daughter and forced to leave the hive, taking half the colony with her. In their search for a new home they encounter a deadly extractor fan, a thunderstorm and a fierce debate over two potential sites to build a hive. With just one last meal of honey for energy, it’s a race against time to see whether they will be able to reach a collective decision on where to relocate.
I decided to collaborate with Roswitha Gerlitz, artist, opera director and writer on The Swarm, due to her interest in the role of the chorus in contemporary opera. Discussions with her helped to inspire the deeper exploration of the individual within the collective (i.e. how the individual bee relates to the colony, which can be thought of as one organism).
It was the different forms of organisation of the bees within the swarm over the process of swarming that really shaped the different stages of the piece in term of music and movement – the level of organisation or disorganisation, consensus or unity, motivations, dynamics, stress levels etc. I became fascinated by the shapes and spatial organisation that the bees would find themselves in and turned to mathematics and polyphonic singing from around the world for inspiration.
Auclair, with whom I keep bees in Dalston, designed a soundscape comprising field recordings and composition, evoking the urban landscape for the piece. She recorded sounds from the beehive and the local urban environment, weaving them together with electronics, much inspired by the vibrations that bees use to communicate and it is to this soundscape that the nine-piece female choir (the bees) sing.
The Swarm is on at VAULT Festival from 8 February.2420 Views
Heloise is a composer and multi-instrumentalist. She is inspired by bees and mathematical ideas and likes to explore the functioning of cooperative networks through music and musical projects. She composes and performs with the psych-rock group Landshapes (Bella Union) and is one half of the synth-pop duo Lunch.