Research sparks a buzz through unique great yellow bumblebee recordings

Mark Ferguson, a doctoral researcher from the Department of Music, has recorded one of the rarest UK bees – the great yellow bumblebee - in its natural habitat. We caught up with him following the recordings being played on BBC Radio 4 (skip to 26:15) earlier this week.

Close-up of a great yellow bumblebee

Tell us a bit about your research

I’m a wildlife sound recordist, composer and doctoral researcher based in the Electroacoustic Music Studios at the University of Birmingham.

Sound recording and studio-based composition are the two main components of my practice-based research. I’m particularly interested in how the various methodologies of wildlife sound recording inform creative work in the studio, and vice versa.

Other research interests include cross-disciplinary work with conservation and environmental organisations, the history of wildlife sound recording, and current developments in field recording methodologies/technologies.

All of my compositions are created exclusively from my own library of natural sounds.

Why do you have an interest in recording bumblebees?

Aside from the fact that pollinators are of great conservation concern at the moment, recording their sounds is something that grew naturally out of my own interest in listening; it’s something I would have explored anyway.

I have some very happy memories of bumblebee encounters as a child in Northern Ireland, and always enjoyed listening to them forage through the garden and nearby fields. Those memories were rekindled a couple of years ago, when I recorded huge numbers of bumblebees foraging through cotoneaster in an abandoned parking space near my home.

Shortly after that experience and with ID assistance from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, I embarked on Bumble: a long-term, conservation-driven project to record bumblebee sounds around the world.

Mark attaching a microphone to a foxglove

Why record the great yellow bumblebee?

It’s now one of the rarest species in the UK, confined to the Orkneys, Caithness and Sutherland, and the Scottish islands. There was a clear opportunity, as part of my research, to raise awareness by recording the species’ sounds. I also knew that recordings made in its natural machair habitat would be incredibly rich sonically, and would provide fascinating material to work with in the studio.

After lots of detailed planning, I applied for SDF funding from the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership to undertake a week-long recording trip around South Uist in mid-August, 2019.

Fortunately, the application was approved and I was able to put my plans into action.

What were your findings from your research trip?

I got what I was after, but it was definitely one of the most challenging recording trips I’ve undertaken.

I had to completely rethink a range of recording methodologies, mostly due to the inclement weather. It took three days of technical adjustments and trial-and-error just to be in a position to make a single, usable recording of a bumblebee. I also had to use the land to my advantage at every opportunity, recording in the lee of dunes and thick vegetation when wind direction allowed.

Bumblebee sound recording is a relatively under-explored area, so some of the techniques I’m developing are quite unique. I’ve spent a lot of time refining my audio equipment (customising it, where required), and learning how invertebrate species react to the recordist’s presence in the field. A lot of these elements can’t really be learnt from textbooks or guides: it’s all about building up fieldcraft and experience, which interweaves strongly with the practice-led elements of my work.

Microphone in the grass

After six days and a few other successful recordings, I struck gold and found a great yellow bumblebee nest on the edge of an exposed, grassy hill. Being very careful not to disturb the bees, I was able to position a couple of microphones just outside the entrance. There were 35-40mph winds and intermittent rain showers at the time, but with a combination of method and luck, I was able to shelter the mics sufficiently and captured some truly unique sounds of the species’ mating activity directly outside the nest.

After thorough, post-trip research and detailed checks with various organisations around the world, it looks like I’m the first person ever to capture these great yellow bumblebee behavioural sounds. As well as this research first, my recordings were recently played by the BBC: so it developed into a world broadcasting first, too.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m giving a number of talks and presentations in the coming months, discussing my great yellow bumblebee recordings and other projects. I now have enough recorded material to form the basis for the majority of my Year 2 studio research. After painstakingly archiving the great yellow recordings, the next stage will be detailed processing and manipulation to create compositions out of them.

Mark would like to thank the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, AHRC, Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST) and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for their continued support.

Explore more at: www.markfergusonaudio.com