The Swarm: a choral exploration of honeybees

“For me, the swarming process is a metaphor for the journey towards achieving a collective identity. A ritual for social cohesion. The swarm must unite as a colony if they want to survive.”

Heloise Tunstall-Behrens, together with co-director and movement designer Roswitha Gerlitz and composer Auclair, presented her musical project ‘The Swarm’ at the Vault Festival, London in February 2017. ‘The Swarm’ uses an all-female choir to reproduce the noise of a beehive, along with an urban soundscape as a backdrop. Choral music, voice and movement merge in this avant-garde piece, which hopes to raise awareness of the endangered condition of honeybees and their importance in a city environment.

When honey bees swarm they must undertake a collective process to determine the location of their future nest site.  Individuals from social insect colonies seek to agree on the same outcome because the group is functionally integrated, having a single mother – the queen bee.  Apart from sharing her genes with the bees, the queen surprisingly has no say in the matter, leaving the decision to the ‘wisdom of the crowds’, whereby pooled independent individual assessments generate a more accurate outcome than any individual group member

On the whole, swarms do make good decisions, and this is how.  The old queen bee and her approximately 10,000 strong swarm evacuate the hive, leaving up to 40,000 bees with her gestating daughter, the new queen. They settle in a cluster, a clump of bees hanging from a tree or traffic light, protecting the queen and conserving their energy.  Scouts are the older members of the colony, bees who have graduated to the role of foraging for nectar and pollen, sometimes flying as far as 3 km from the hive and so have acquired the kind of deep knowledge of the local area needed to find a new nest location.  These bees are tasked with exploring different locations in the vicinity of the swarm cluster.  They assess a potential location in terms of volume of cavity, size of entrance, dryness and draftiness of cavity, rejoining the cluster to perform waggle dances in front of their sisters to pitch their nest site.  The duration and intensity of these dances vary: scouts who have found a more attractive site dance longer and more excitedly to signal the value of their location.  Inspired by the quality of the dance, their sisters then fly to the location and then return to do their own dances if they concur, inspiring other bees.  This process continues until a quorum of bees is fulfilled for one nest site, after which the swarm moves en-mass to the chosen location.

How does this process fare in the city, an environment that poses more challenges than the woodland habitats normally frequented by honey bees? When one of my hives swarmed, relocated and sadly expired in the extractor fan of a local bakery I became aware of the dangers of the swarming process.  The crucial decision can be a matter of life or death for a new colony.

Currently, the bees are not being helped by humans and the numerous challenges and obstacles that they create, be it emigrating them to unfamiliar soils and climes with new pathogens, transporting them long distances in trucks to labour as pollinators for specific crops, covering their environment in chemicals or replacing their precious honey stores for sugar syrup.  But we all know that if the bees go, we go soon after.  Not only do we depend on them for the pollination of our food crops and feed for livestock, but they also pollinate numerous flora and fauna that are essential to the earth’s ecosystem.  Humans and bees are inextricably interconnected.

I first got the idea for ‘The Swarm’ when I borrowed a set of theatre microphones on long wires from a friend and put them into our hive.  Listening back to the audio captured after a few hours, I was enveloped in an all encompassing hum, a vibration, a collective sound.  Momentarily I could pick out individual bees as they came close to the microphone, but they were soon lost within the symphony.  Eager to see whether the sound changed according to the changing environment, I recorded at different times of the day and throughout the spring during a particularly active period of swarming.  This was the first time I heard the incredible phenomenon of ‘piping and quacking’, an unborn queen bee alerting her predecessor to her emergence.  My awareness was suddenly heightened to the drama that surrounds the process of swarming and inspired the idea of creating music about it.

The idea of telling of the story through the form of opera arose through conversations with Roswitha Gerlitz, artist, writer and contemporary opera director who explored and translated the physical and musical movement with the singers.  She was interested to replace the traditional role of the protagonist with the chorus.  Usually tasked with conveying the background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance, the chorus would now be the central character, existing as a swarm – a collective.  Whereas an opera singer in an opera might display the torment of an emotional decision, the bees would elucidate that decision through contrasting perspectives, just as you might see neurons in a brain weighing up a judgement.  The piece would play with the idea of a honeybee colony as a community and also as a superorganism within which there is a constant fluctuating magnetism between the individual and the collective.

I decided to compose for female voices because the scout bees are all female and I wanted to emphasise, through allegory, the power of women working together.  Musically, I worked closely with composer Auclair, who developed the soundscape of the piece, made up of field recordings of the bees, the city and composed materials.  The idea of the soundscape was to replace a physical set with sound, creating a sensory experience for the audience of the environment within which the bees were scouting.  Together we worked out the musical parameters for the piece by analysing the frequencies of the swarm recordings in order to give a key signature within which each movement would be set.

Thomas D. Seeley’s book ‘Honeybee Democracy’, which reveals 60 years of research, starting with the work of Martin Lindauer in Germany on the democratic decision-making process of honey bee swarms served as my guide to understand the different stages and dynamics of the swarming process.  I was intrigued by the level of spatial organisation, the alternating importance of each individual bee and the degree of coherence/consensus level between the collective and explored these aspects in order to create vocal scores.

At the beginning the bees are carousing each other to leave the hive, pulled by an invisible force that is their swarming instinct.  I imagined them sleepy, having consumed enough honey to last until they locate a new home but also somewhat disorientated with this being the first time in their lives that they have left the hive en mass and thus there is a feeling of instability.  I wrote a piece with polyrhythms, repeated phrases in different meters, which when combined evoke a feeling of disassociation.

After leaving the hive they get as close as they can to each other, forming a cluster, which is nevertheless a state of disorder whilst they embark on their exploration of the surrounding area.  The bees sing a Euclidean rhythm obtained by the Euclidian Algorithm whereby “the greatest common divisor of two numbers is used rhythmically giving the number of beats and silences”[i].  This was to explore the optimal spacing of the bees.  With each bee starting the rhythm, singing the beats to a vowel, at different starting points, the result is a somewhat cacophonous feeling of disorder and changing attraction between the closely packed bees.

The exploration results in scouts returning to the cluster to advertise their site through the waggle dance: a dynamic, focused ritual which results in a ‘dance-off’ between a few sites of similar quality.  This is the section with the most narrative, where the bees are essentially conveying the shape of the urban spaces they have discovered, enticing interplay between the options as different bees are enticed by each sales pitch.  I was inspired by the polyphonic singing of the Baka people of the Cameroon, whose melodies interlock together and also mirror the sounds of the forests where they live (I drew instead on the sounds of the city).  When each bee became interested in the dance of another, they completed their words and melody, creating a complete phrase.  This idea plays on a hocket, a melody divided between two or more parts, notes in one part coinciding with rests in the other, which when performed gives the listener the auditory illusion of being one voice – the voice of the collective.  It is a reflection of the fact that many bees are more intelligent than one bee – a quality of an emergent system.

The ‘dance-off’ section results in unity of consensus once a quorum for one site has been reached, giving a sense of completion and euphoria that settles into a feeling of organisation, belonging, unity and purpose as the bees move to their new nest site in a large cloud of bees 10m long, 8m wide and 3m tall.  The bees are wider spaced this time, each about 27cm apart and much more organised in formation with a few ‘streaker bees’, who guide the swarm cloud towards the nest site by flying faster and weaving through the cloud.  This piece is an airy hocket of strict meter with a lyrical melody sung by two bees – the streakers.

The final piece is the arrival into the new nest and is the first time that the bees sing in unison, signifying strength, having achieved a collective decision and overcome their challenge.  Additionally, they are resolved in their unity to continue to build their home, drawing wax and filling it with precious nectar.  This is the first time that they can reflect on their journey and their collective oneness.

The evolution of a common language was one way in which I played with the idea of creating a group identity.  In the beginning the singers are singing non-sense syllables, and then evolve to sing elements of words and sentences, which are completed by a sister in the ‘Dance off’.  It is only at the end that they have a group language, one voice.  This mirrors the change from the polyphonic textures to the more homophonic shared meter after ‘Dance off’ whereby the group is transformed from a swarm to a colony that has achieved social cohesion.

For me, the swarming process is a metaphor for the journey towards achieving a collective identity.  It is a ritual for social cohesion.  The swarm must unite as a colony if they want to survive.  The challenge of finding a new nest site is a galvanising factor towards unification, allowing each bee to have a role and an input in the decision.  Through this, each individual is bought-in through a feeling of effecting the outcome.  Additionally, through understanding the views of each individual, the collective forms an identity and thereby unity.

This decentralised process of decision making has a formal structure with strict rules for inclusivity and fairness, resulting in an outcome that everyone accepts (most of the time[ii]).  The feeling of ‘oneness’, a product of interaction, is essential for the future life of the collective and is its strength.  Could this process be institutionalised for larger social groupings, like nations?

Seeley saw the collective decision-making of the honey bees as a metaphor and inspiration for democracy.  He proposed lessons on how to reach good group decisions, like the bees:

‘Lesson 1: compose the decision-making group of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect

Lesson 2: minimise the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking

Lesson 3: seek diverse solutions to the problem

Lesson 4: aggregate the group’s knowledge through debate

Lesson 5: use quorum responses for cohesion, accuracy and speed[iii]’

Taking the lessons from the bees one step further, Glen Weyl and associates have envisioned a form of democracy that incorporates strength of opinion within the decision-making.  Seeing a weakness in the equal voting system, they propose a system where the indifferent can impact less on the overall outcome.  Their ‘quadratic-voting’ is based on the ‘ability to exert influence on the issues that really matter to an individual, bi-passing the tyranny of the majority where a large number of people care only a little about an outcome prevail over a minority that cares passionately, resulting in a reduction of aggregate welfare'[iv].  Could this be a better form of democracy?

Perhaps ‘quadratic-voting’ could give hope to those passionate about maintaining the balance of the earth’s ecosystem, but to become advocates, we need to see from the bees’ perspective.  At the moment the way we treat bees is representative of the way we perceive the world – with us at the centre, masters over nature.  We view bees in terms of ownership and management instead of interconnected cohabitants of earth.  If we were to recognise that bees are our equals, just as New Zealand recently recognised that the Whanganui river is a living entity, granting it the same legal status as that of a human being, we’d stand to benefit ourselves as well as the bees.

Bees have evolved their form of society over 146 million years and therefore stand as experts in the field of social cohesion.  The hope when embarking on ‘The Swarm’ was to bring us closer to the nature of the honey bee so that we could recognise with wonder this ancient form of collective intelligence where decision-making strengthens a group and gives it an identity.  I hope we can learn from their methods.

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[i]      Godfried Toussaint, ‘The Euclidean Algorithm Generates Traditional Musical Rhythms’, 2005

[ii]      On rare occasions the swarm cannot decide and splits to two different locations with fatal outcomes.  Thomas D. Seeley, ‘Honeybee Democracy’, Princeton University Press, 2010

[iii]     ‘Honeybee Democracy’, Thomas D. Seeley, Princeton, 2010

[iv]    Eric Posner, ‘Quadratic Voting’, 2014 http://ericposner.com/quadratic-voting/ and https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/05/humans-are-doing-democracy-wrong-bees-are-doing-it-right/

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The Swarm was performed at Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe in September 2016 and at VAULT Festival in February 2017

All photos by Dan Wilton

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