In the dimly lit room, translucent nest sculptures dot the ground and a soaring chorus of voices swells. This isn’t a fever dream — it’s an art installation that puts the viewer in the perspective of a bee, sensing the world in a way that is unfamiliar to most humans.
The project, “A Better Nectar,” runs at the California State University Long Beach art museum through April 12. Its creator, artist Jessica Rath, recalls hearing a low hum one day outside her house a few years back. It turned out to be a jumble of bumble bees doing what’s known as a cold huddle, where the bees rub against each other to stay warm.
Rath was initially interested in creating sculptures of hexagonal-shaped hives, but when she heard a radio interview with scientist Anne Leonard of the University of Nevada at Reno, she got a new idea. Leonard studies bee vision and resonance, and when Rath contacted her, the scientist invited the artist to come visit her lab.
Rath and a sound artist, Robert Hoehn, flew out to Nevada and saw the work Leonard was doing on native bumble bees. “A Better Nectar” grew out of those ideas.
About 8 percent of the world’s flowers — including important food crops like tomatoes and eggplants — have to be pollinated by bees buzzing at a specific frequency, something that’s known as buzz pollination. To coax the plants into releasing their pollen, the bees use their bodies as tiny tuning forks, explained Rath.
“Bees and flowers have created a specific language over millennial time,” says Rath. “They’ve been at this for much longer than we’ve been around.”
Part of the exhibition is Staminal Evolution, large sculptures of tomato and manzanita flower stamens, enlarged to human scale. The stamen anthers are the part of the flower buzzed by resonating bees. Initially, Rath wanted the flower parts to spew out pollen, but eventually nixed that plan due to worries about triggering visitors’ allergies.
Another section, Bee Purple, shows what a bee might see when looking at a flower. Bees perceive colors on the ultraviolet spectrum and have no vision for red (and don’t pollinate red flowers for this reason). They also see lines and breaks, but not shapes as humans do. As pictures of flowers come up on a smaller screen, a larger projection shows what bees might see. Petals of an orchid become blurry blue ovals slowly moving towards each other.
But the highlight of the exhibition is the Resonant Nest, a sculpted immersive experience inside the largest room of the museum. The dimly room — meant to emulate an underground bee nest — pulses with the vibrating sounds sung by the 40-person Cal State University Long Beach chamber choir. The sculpted nests hold 10 speakers and the sound just seems to wash over you.
Hoehn created music that reflects the daily activities of bumblebees as they move from nest to flower: The works are called Languid Wander, Afternoon Forage, Early Sunset, Quiet Sleep, Cold Huddle, Buzz Foragers and Too Close.
Most of the music written to describe bees is frenetic and crazy, and Hoehn wanted to create something natural and cyclic. “[As a bee], you’d feel the kind of day that would be good for foraging,” he says.
While some of the musical compositions are low tones, one stood out: The score included a human-voiced soaring fast ziiiiieeee to emulate the foraging bees heading out to find some food.
The score shifts from one composition to another, in response to current weather conditions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hoehn says that bees are able to sense things like tiny changes in air pressure, and they change their behaviors in a second to respond to the conditions.
“We forget that humans spend so much time inside, but a bee’s whole life is so connected to those subtle changes,” Rath says. Bees don’t actually communicate with sound; instead, they use dances or pheromone trails to send messages to other bees.
Both Rath and Hoehn have respect for the humble bumbles, which is why they wanted to make the bee’s world alive to humans. “Bees have a whole different sensory experience, and we are living on one miniscule plane of the planet. It’s not just light and sound and smell and taste — it’s so much more,” says Rath. “And one way to join their world is to make ourselves smaller.”
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