The Hive

I had heard about The Hive at Kew Gardens, but I didn't know how moving and immersive visiting it would be. A and I almost missed it. It's not readily visible from the central path, but we saw a corner of it reaching beyond some trees and walked over. Surrounded by a meadow of wildflowers, it sits on stilts so viewers can experience it from all directions.

Wolfgang Buttress designed The Hive after a honey bee hive; built from aluminum hexagonal frames, it is an airy space, constantly changing form and transparency as I moved through it. Lights and speakers stud the framing. Accelerometers detect vibrations in the nearby orangerie bee hive and send those signals in the forms of lights and sounds to the structure. The Hive sings the songs of the bees in various octaves of the key of C—bees' one note—lights flickering along with the bees' actions. The more activity at the hive, the brighter and louder it is.

A bee doesn't hear through ears like human ears, but through its proboscis. Underneath The Hive, several columns carry the sounds of the nearby hive. Clean wooden stirrer sticks sit in containers on the top of the columns so visitors can take one, bite down on it, and insert the stick like a bee's proboscis into the column. The sound vibrates right through the stick, through the teeth, jawbones, and seemingly right into the brain. The effect was so powerful it gave both A and me goosebumps.

Being inside The Hive was transformative. Never before in my life have I had the feeling that I stepped out of my speciehood and even partly into another. But The Hive made me feel different. Since it is connected to the nearby bee hive and every light and sound reflects what's happening there but translated to a scale I could feel and see, I had the opportunity to feel fleetingly non-human. When else does this happen? I couldn't stop smiling.

I'll never make honey. I'll never buzz at just the right vibration for a particular flower to release it's secret prize of pollen. I'll never experience a true matriarchy or Colony Collapse Disorder. Yet, for a few moments at Kew last week, I heard and saw a bit like a bee. And now my universe is bigger.


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