Ed's note: Spirit of the Beehive (TX: 11am, Friday 2 September 2011) is a composed feature by Nina Perry exploring our enduring relationship with the honeybee. Here on the blog Nina talks about the making of the programme. You can listen to Spirit of the Beehive online shortly after transmission for seven days - PM.
Karl Von Frisch, the scientist who discovered that honeybees perform a waggle dance to communicate with one another, described the life of bees as "a magic well". At times making Spirit of the Beehive felt like diving into an infinite elixir - bees are spellbinding.
Coming face to face with a hive of bees for the first time was a heady experience, the fear and awe focussed the mind, whilst the tantalising aroma of honey and wax, and the buzzing, thrumming sound of around 50,000 bees going about their daily duties seduced the senses. I understand why bees provoke admiration and respect from those who work with them and why beekeeping is growing in popularity - bees are great.
Humankind's relationship with bees is by no means a new thing as Professor of Apiculture Francis Ratnieks from the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects says: "the honeybee is man's best friend, and this goes back thousands of years".
Our wise ancestors appreciated the honeybee as provider of sweetness and light - honey and wax for candles. But they were probably unaware of one of the honeybee's greatest gifts - "only recently have we realised the importance of pollination, including pollination of foods ranging from from apples and almonds to coffee and oil seed rape" says Professor Ratnieks.
Paradoxically as the numbers of honeybees are declining our appetite for foods pollinated by bees is on the increase. So how do we help the honeybee (and in turn help ourselves)?
"What would be a good way of conserving an animal? Well it might be ask it what it needs" says Professor Ratnieks, who with his team at Sussex University is observing and decoding the bees' waggle dance to discover where they like to forage best.
We can learn a great deal from listening and observing bees, and not just about bees, we also learn about ourselves. My experience of listening to bees was disconcerting, recording up close and hearing the hive through headphones created the aural illusion of bees flying into my ears.
I wanted to flap, swat, run, but remembered the advice of 17 year old beekeeper Devente who works with the Social Enterprise The Golden Company based in Hackney in East London:
"When you understand a bee, when you know what it's doing your perspective changes from swatting to being still."
So I face my fear of being stung, still myself and listen. As part radio producer, part composer I've a particular interest in the musicality of the hive and my aim in this feature is to convey the spirit of the beehive in both words and music.
As Zoe Palmer founder of the Golden Company explains "the bees life is filled with sound and vibration and communication, it's really complex and really harmonious, it's almost as if the hive is a big vibrating music box."
A musician as well as a beekeeping social entrepreneur Zoe says of the life of bees "it's like being in a choir producing a sound greater than you can as an individual, the bees work together to produce something they cannot individually create, they work for the benefit of the whole hive."
Honeybees are highly successful social beings and the way in which they live and work together can be a useful metaphor for us humans who are relative newcomers to living in social groups, and let's face it, sometimes we're not very good at it.
For the Golden Company the bees embody their business ethos of social and economic inclusion and environmental responsibility. I completed the composed feature Spirit of the Beehive a week before the August riots.
As trouble ignited in my local area I felt my fear grow. My thoughts turned to the inspirational young bee guardians I had met in Hackney, how was it for them?
A day or two after the fires had died down I received word, an invitation to The Golden Company's honey harvest. Happily I returned to Hackney and cheered as the beekeepers reaped some of the rewards of their gentle focussed patient care: sweetness and light, what a gift and what a tonic.
Nina Perry is the award-winning producer of Spirit of the Beehive as well as composing the music. You can find out more about Nina's work on her website.
- There's a list of additional bee-related material and resources that didn't fit in the programme on the Spirit of the Beehive website.