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A World Exposition or ‘Expo’ is an international public exhibition held once every five years. The 2015 Milan Expo brought together 145 participating nations under the theme “Feeding the Planet: Energy for Life” from May – October 2015. The UK Pavilion, designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress, highlights the plight of the honeybee focusing attention on the importance of pollination.

Pollination is an essential process, underwriting at least a third of our food, yet global bee populations are in sharp decline. The design team worked with bee-expert Dr. Martin Bencsik, drawing inspiration from his innovative research on monitoring and interpreting vibrational honey bee signals. At the UK Pavilion, visitors meander through an orchard, discover a wildflower meadow and enter ‘the Hive’, a sculpture that glows and hums - simulating conditions in a real beehive. ‘The Hive’ acts as a medium or interface, conveying bee activity at a specific point in time. Signals from a bee colony in Nottingham are streamed in real-time to the UK Pavilion in Milan, activating a lighting-array and immersive soundscape.

Sound was an unseen but powerful dimension of the experience. To develop this, Wolfgang approached musicians Kev Bales and Tony Foster, who’ve worked with Spiritualized, Julian Cope, Dave Gahan and Mark Lanegan, among others. The concept was to create a soundscape, which would be activated by the live-streamed signals from bees. These signals triggered noise gates at particular thresholds, activating harmonious stems from a pre-recorded library. The result is a constantly changing and evolving symphony - a dialogue between bee and human.

The initial recording session was with cellist Deidre Bencsik and vocalist Camille Buttress on 12th February 2015 in Nottingham. A live feed of beehive sounds was played, while the musicians improvised to accompany this in the key of D. These tracks formed the base for most of the record. Piano, Mellotron and lapsteel were also added, forming a framework for the main tracks.  

Other musicians were invited to add to this core sound including Jason Pierce, Youth and the Amiina string section (used by Sigur Rós) their contributions were edited and woven in.

The initial aim was to produce a piece of music to use at the Expo, but as the project progressed, it took on a life of it’s own, leading to the creation of a full album available here. At the heart of all the tracks is the sound of the bees, the hive drone and the more specific messages captured by Dr. Bencsik. The idea is that the musicians collaborate with the bees -it seemed that they led the way and the musicians let the music form naturally around them.

Specific bee communication signals:

1. ‘Begging signals’
These are short pulses used by one honey bee to request a sample of food from another.

2. ‘Waggle dance’
This signal comes from a honey bee that has found an exciting source of food in the outside world. It provides information about the location and quantity of food.

3. ‘Tooting’
There can only be one queen in a hive, except for when young virgin queens are born. This signal is a challenge call from a virgin queen honey bee that has already emerged from her cell challenging another unborn queen in a display of strength.

4. ‘Tooting’ and ‘Quacking’
This is a vocal exchange between two virgin queens, starting with a ‘toot’ and followed by an exchange of ‘quacks and toots’. The ‘quack’ comes from a virgin queen that is still in her queen cell and is a ‘response’ to the ‘tooting’ made by the virgin queen that is already freed. The vocal exchange can last up to 2-3 days, is thought to be a sizing up exercise, and can sometimes lead to a fight to the death.   

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