British beekeeper and musician Bioni (pronounced BEE-own-ee) Samp has found an incredible way to combine his two greatest passions. He records the frequencies of his bees and uses them to create original electronic musical compositions.
Bioni – a pseudonym, as his real name is a closely guarded secret – produces abstract music that is rhythmic and dancey, but the 50-something Londoner has a higher goal than making people get jiggy with it on the dance floor. He uses his unusual music to raise awareness about colony collapse disorder (CDC), a plague that has wiped out millions of honeybee hives globally since 2006. Billions of bees are killed by CDC every year, and that’s not counting the ones that dies as result of climate change and pesticide poisoning. he feels that by using bees as a musical instrument he can get through to people easier than by preaching to them about the plight of bees and the dangers their extinction poses to humanity.
Photo: Bioni Samp
“If I went around with a Greenpeace badge on and started shouting about deforestation, people quickly tire of that, it doesn’t really connect with people,” Samp told Motherboard. “So I worked around the idea of presenting something that’s got an underlying ecological message, but it’s put over in a way which interest geeks and people interested in electronic music and computing.”
Originally from West Yorkshire, Bioni Samp has been an apiarian enthusiast since early childhood, but some years ago he discovered that bees were useful not just for pollinating plants and producing honey, but also making electronic music.
He began recording and analyzing the the frequencies of his bees, such as the “songs” the queens make when communicating with their hives, and using them in his electronic compositions. He also spent a decade, from 2006-2016, inventing the Hive Synthesiser, “an ever expanding, modular synthesiser made from recycled electrical components, that emulates ‘bee sounds’ and uses honey as a organic electrical resistor”.
Samp’s bee-generated music has been featured at environmentally-conscious festivals and art galleries throughout Europe, and even in Canada. He always performs in his classic beekeeper’s suit, and often uses symbolic setups during his sets. One of them, for example, features three oscillators, representing the hive hierarchy – one for the workers, one for the drones, and one for the queen. His
Samp sometimes relies on numerology when creating his unique music, using data from the beehive diaries he keeps as inputs on digital synthesizer programs such as Max/MSP.
“You can put a tray in a beehive with a kind of graph pattern on and then look at how many Varroa mites have fallen through the mesh floor onto this sheet of paper,” Samp explains. “You can use the kind of numerology to make sounds…I put in numbers like how long it’s been since the queen laid some eggs and some drones appeared in the hive. I started typing all these numbers in, and I have music being created.”
One of the breakthroughs Samp is most proud of was the discovery that honey could be used as a resistor to limit electrical flow through a circuit. He utilized honey to adjust the sound of his Hive Synthesizer, giving his music what he calls “an organic element.”
Bioni Samp was featured in the 360º BBC mini-documentary, The Resistance of Honey, which the Raindance Film Festival nominated for Best VR Sound Design Experience. It showed a day in the life of the beekeeper and featured his studio as well as the bee house he co-designed and built for three of his bee colonies.
Another film festival rejected the documentary, which Samp believes had to do with pesticide companies sponsoring the event. He wouldn’t name the festival or the company, but a few months later the film was again rejected by another festival, which he then discovered was sponsored by the same pesticide company.
“They didn’t want people learning about me and my anti-pesticide stance, my anti-GM crop stance…it’s a form of censorship,” Samp told Motherboard. “When I started beekeeping many, many years ago, I didn’t realize it’d be so political by now.”
Instead of focusing on the negative, however, Samp is carrying on with his work. Besides planning a tour, Samp is almost done with a new album, and has a publishing deal for an “alternative beekeeper’s diary.” He is also currently designing a rotating hexagonal sculpture that gives off a sound-creating magnetic field.