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Posted: 26 September 2019 by Anne Ashford (aka Pike)

Honeybees get their own stage at Glastonbury Festival 2019

Anne's article about the sculptor Wolfgang Buttress's latest installation appears in the October issue of the BBKA News.

Five colonies of Cornish black bees (a variant of Apis millifera millifera) went about their business as usual on the farm of Glastonbury Festival co-founder Michael Eavis, seemingly oblivious to what was happening on the other side of the hedge and their role in performing for 200,000 festival-goers for four days this summer.

But the sights and sounds from their apiary filled a bespoke stage area some 5,000 metres away in the Greenpeace field near a skate park and a 22 metre high ‘rave tree’; they were the stars of BEAM, an immersive sculptural installation from internationally renowned artist Wolfgang Buttress, who created the award winning Hive sculpture at Kew Gardens.

“BEAM is a multi-sensory sculpture combining sound and lights and is inspired by bees,” said Wolfgang showing me around. “The ambition is to evoke a sense of peace, a sense of communicating with nature and to connect this with the real-time activity of bees.”

More than 7,000 locally sourced and unprocessed Sitka spruce posts were used to build a 30 metre diameter woodland maze, shaped rather like a partially drawn cell on a honeycomb, with a large, hexagonal clearing in the centre. Sounds from the Worthy Farm colonies triggered LED lights and speakers built into the wooden structure and, at night, the walls were alive with art laser projections of honeybees in high definition film, MRI and thermal imagery.

“The inspiration for this sculpture is about trying to express the existential challenges that honeybees are facing and what we as humans can do to help by somehow creating an affinity, a connection, to how important these amazing creatures are.

“It started off as a single idea but there have been 200 people creating this work. It’s been a beautiful experience, in a way it’s almost like we’re in our own little colony coming together like a hive creating this work; what we can do together is amazing.”

Scientific collaborator Dr Martin Bencsik, an Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University, installed accelerometers (vibration sensors) into the hives (WBCs with Hoffman frames) which sent live signals to a bank of laptops and sound mixers to create a soundscape curated by Wolfgang, Tony Foster and Kev Bales, who form the musical collective BE.

Kev: “We’re trying to make music with bees; we’re not making some music and throwing some bees in! The starting point was getting information from the bees and we found out the key they drone in is around C, somewhere between B and C.”

Sound designer Paulie Roche added: “It’s a constantly evolving piece of music; it’s generative and completely dynamic and the idea is that there is never the same experience in BEAM twice. Bees are a great musical conductor, if you will.”

While the accelerometers send signals in one direction, some bees discovered the artwork for themselves. “I’ve seen a few in the BEAM, which is absolutely beautiful,” added Kev. “When we’re playing it is fantastic to see bees landing on the wooden sections.”

As with most things at Glastonbury, it was used differently throughout the day: some utilised the central space for yoga and relaxation while, at night, it was filled with people dancing to the rhythm of the bees.
“The inspiration for this sculpture is about trying to express the existential challenges that honeybees are facing and what we as humans can do to help by somehow creating an affinity, a connection, to how important these amazing creatures are,” commented Wolfgang, from Nottingham and who has yet to become a beekeeper.

“My first experience with bees was with Martin [Dr Martin Bencsik]. When I put a beekeeper’s suit on and picked up a frame of bees I was a little bit nervous to be honest but that evaporated almost instantly: I picked this frame up and it was incredible with these creatures walking across the frame. It was the smell that was intoxicating, the propolis and the honeycomb, and this sound, this deep low visceral kind of hum, and it was kind of life changing in a lot of ways. For me it was like a lens into another world, a really fascinating world which tells as much about them as it does about us as humans.”

As a festival-goer and beekeeper I found BEAM to be an engaging and powerful comment on the natural world, reminding us all of our responsibilities and showing us just what we have to lose. This message is very much in-tune with Glastonbury Festival, which won plaudits for banning single use plastics this year. Organisers highlighted the plight of the natural world in many ways including artwork across the site from literally centre stage above the heads of performers to artist-in-residence Kurt Jackson’s ‘Give a bee a chance’ image used on festival programmes and t-shirts.

Now that the artists, festival goers and the huge infrastructure which supports the biggest festival in the world have left this Somerset dairy farm, the wooden structure has a legacy as a giant bee hotel: hand drills were used to create holes in the trunks to entice solitary bees and other insects to move in before, eventually, the structure will decay and return to the earth.

To see Wolfgang’s first exploration of the UK’s honeybees, visit Kew Gardens where The Hive is a permanent fixture.