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The Hive at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

The Hive at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew
22 Jul
A new installation at Kew Gardens gives visitors a hands (or teeth)-on chance to interact with the secret life of bees

Over a meadow of wildflowers comes the sound of low, ominous droning. It’s ‘The Hive’, an equally ominous-looking metal structure that spirals 17 metres into the air. Suddenly, it erupts with the sound of church organs. Things are about to get weird.

That’s because bees are weird, and The Hive wants to help you understand them. British artist Wolfgang Buttress modelled the angular sculpture on the perfect hexagons bees create to store their food and larvae. Inside, the yellow filaments of 1,000 lightbulbs flicker in response to the flux in insect activity. ‘There is always some activity going on,’ says Stratton Meyer, one of the installation’s ‘Explainers’. ‘Even when most of the worker bees are out gathering nectar, others stay behind and vibrate to keep the hive a constant temperature. That explains the incessant humming – the bees aim for a cosy 35 degrees so the queen can lay her eggs.

The Hive is not an ordinary exhibit, in that the thought behind some features are not outwardly obvious. For example, an intriguing pillar slotted with what looks like USB portals waits to be touched with a wooden stick. ‘If you clamp your teeth on the end of the stick, and cover your ears,’ explains Meyer, ‘you can hear the vibrations in your skull, which our brains interpret as sound.’ It’s a human translation of how bees hear each other through their feet. The abstract presentation speaks to the mysteriousness of bee society, and piques curiosity. For such an immersive piece, it works to have human explainers on hand instead of blocks of text.


The data being streamed into the lights and speakers comes live from a real hive located off-site – a honeybee colony that is also being monitored by bee researcher Martin Bencsik at Nottingham Trent University. When the bees get excited – apparently they’re at their busiest around 2-3pm in the afternoon – the droning baseline lifts to other instruments, recorded by Bencsik and Buttress, turning the twisted metal into a chamber of sound. Eerie riffs from yawning cellos and church organs mimic the the ‘piping’ or ‘tooting’ of queen bees to their colony and the ‘waggle dance’ between worker bees explaining where to find food.

What results is an arresting exhibit to see and hear. A place to sit and consider the intelligence of the bees, the creatures that we depend on for 30 per cent of our food, but which are increasingly threatened by a lack of biodiversity. ‘Luckily, the bees at Kew don’t seem to be sharing the same fate as those the rest of the country,’ says Meyer. ‘It could be because they are not short of biodiversity here.’

The Hive is open for viewing at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew from June 2016 until November 2017. Hive Lates will occur in September, when the site can be seen in the dark. Entrance to the gardens – Adults: £15, Concessions: £14, Children: £3.50. Free for Friends of Kew and children under three. For more information visit www.kew.org/thehive.

Enter our great competition to win a ticket to view The Hive along with a copy of The Hive at Kew book! Click here to enter!

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