Exploring the unique sound world of the UK’s rarest species

Mark Ferguson sets up a microphone in the field

Mark Ferguson, a wildlife sound recordist, composer and doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, recently recorded the great yellow bumblebee in its natural habitat, which was then aired on BBC Radio 4. Mark talks us through his work as a sound recordist and his ongoing search for the great yellow bumblebee.

I record wildlife sounds wherever I can find them, using specialised (and very expensive!) pieces of audio equipment. I then use these sounds as ‘building blocks’ for loudspeaker-based, electroacoustic compositions.

A great yellow bumblebee worker, foraging
A great yellow bumblebee worker, foraging on knapweed in the Isle of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

At the moment, I’m very interested in bumblebee sounds and I’ve been working on a project to record them for just over two years, with ID (identification) assistance from The Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

After detailed planning throughout early 2019, the AHRC/Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership provided funding for a week-long recording trip to South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. My goal was to capture the sounds of one of the rarest UK species: the great yellow bumblebee.

It was an incredibly demanding trip. I was dealing with 35-40 mph winds and intermittent rain showers with very little shelter, not to mention human disturbance and the challenge of actually finding the bees in the first place! It took three days just to get a single, usable recording.

However, six days into the trip, I struck gold and found a great yellow bumblebee nest on the edge of a grassy hill. With wind direction and dry conditions in my favour, I managed to carefully position a couple of very sensitive, miniature microphones near the entrance.

The great yellow nest, showing microphone placement at the entrance. The bees buzzed around the mics and eventually mated with the queen.

On that day, I became the first sound recordist ever to capture great yellow behavioural activity outside the nest, as males buzzed and jostled for an opportunity to mate with the emerging queen. I can’t begin to describe my excitement as I stood on that hillside and listened.

As well as this research first, the BBC broadcast the sounds a few days later; so the whole nation also got to hear these incredibly rare bumblebee sounds for the first time.

Imagination is the only limitation

I’m still editing and cataloguing the recordings I made on South Uist, and will shortly be giving a series of presentations at various conservation and arts events to describe my experiences on the island.

I’m also in the process of writing some computer code to help process the sonic materials I captured. I plan to use my great yellow bumblebee recordings to compose a large-scale electroacoustic piece – or perhaps a suite of shorter pieces – exploring the unique sound world of the species and its surrounding habitat.

All of this work will take place in the Electroacoustic Music Studios at the University of Birmingham, and should be completed by mid-2020.

Sound recording and studio-based composition are the two main elements of my practice-based research.  If I recorded a family of ravens in the mountains, for example, I might decide to use special software in the studio to explore the intricacies of the ravens’ calls, wingbeats and other sounds in microscopic detail. I can bring them closer, fragment them, duplicate them…

The end result might be a composition that immerses concert hall listeners in an imagined/reconstructed sound world of 100 or even 1,000 ravens, with every call and feather vibration rendered in microscopic detail. In short: it’s like painting with raw sound, using only wildlife recordings as colours and using different brushes (technologies) to apply them. Imagination is the only limitation.

To hear a recording of the great yellow bumble bee visit the article on the University of Birmingham’s website which has a link to the BBC Radio 4 .

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