New Spring Project

Over the last few months I’ve been working on a new sound piece for an exhibition called FIFTY BEES III.  (9 March – 6 May, Brewhouse, Taunton. Times vary Open Monday-Saturday 9:30am-4:30pm)

A bit of background………….

Lydia Needle sculpts British Bees in wool and stitch. She invites other artists to create responses to the ecology and hidden worlds of each individual bee.

For each of the FIFTY BEES exhibitions, fifty artists, makers, writers and musicians produce one new work in response to one of the bees, in order to give a fuller illustration of the diversity of our bee population, how endangered it is and how our pollinators are completely interlinked with our ecosystem.

There are 270 different bees in Britain.  With this the third exhibition 150 of these will have been studied and celebrated.

The bee that loves blackberries

Composed by Helen Ottaway  Voice Caroline Radcliffe


Visual artist, and my frequent collaborator, Rowena Pearce introduced me to Lydia Needle and her bee project.  I visited the FIFTY BEES II exhibition in Langport in 2018, including a piece by Rowena and found it captivating and full of beautiful work.  As far as could tell there had not so far been a response in sound and so I proposed that I might compose a soundscape for the next exhibition.  The bee chosen for me is Andrena flavipes, the yellow-legged mining bee.  This is a solitary bee, quite common in southern England, with, as the name suggest, bright yellow legs. 50951975_762101934154165_6789635059163856896_n


I particularly love the fact that Lydia made this bee while by the sea in Cornwall.  Water is often a strong influence in my work and in this case it’s already woven into the making of Bee 108.  I used the sound of bees as the starting point for my piece.  Bees buzz by moving their flight muscles and wings as they fly. Mining bees also buzz while pollinating, vibrating the flowers to release the pollen.  The pitch of the buzz varies according to the bee’s size. Buzz-pollinating has its own distinctive sound. When I was given my brief, at the end of August last year, the bees were still flying so I was able to do some field recording to capture the buzzing that forms the basis of my piece.

So with the buzzing in my ears I sat at the piano, pencil in hand and notated to the best of my ability the pitches and patterns made by the bees.  The resulting melodies and patterns for voice all have their origins in the field bee recordings.  Along with notating the musical sounds made by the bees I have included some of the names of the flowers frequented by my bee.  Like me, this bee likes to forrage on brambles, hence the title.
The vocal parts are performed by singer and choir leader Caroline Radcliffe and recorded in her home studio in Frome. The voice starts by copying the bee sounds and then gradually turns the buzzing into interweaving melodic lines.
The piece needed to be played through something and housed in something and so Steve and I set about designing a bespoke box.  He found materials – foraged from our cellar and railway sites – and put together a plain and practical wooden box.  There’s just room for the playback devise, mini headphone amp and plugs inside and there are holes for the power cable and heaphone leads.  The headphones hang on a piece of broom handle slotted across the width of the box.  It’s all very self contained and simply needs to be plugged in to play.


The exhibition is at The Brewhouse, Coal Orchard, Taunton, Somerset from Saturday 9th March until Monday 6th May. There are special FIFTY BEES events during the run including workshops, family days and ‘meet the artists’ sessions.  See the Brewhouse website for more details.  All are welcome to the launch on Saturday 9th March 5 – 7 pm.

To listen, purchase and download The bee that loves blackberries visit my bandcamp page here.  More information on Lydia Needle and the FIFTY BEES project can be found here.

Thank you

With many thanks to Bridget and Rob for the use of their garden for field recording; Satsymph for technical advice; Alastair Goolden for technical advice and electronics; Caroline Radcliffe for her beautiful voice and Steve Ehrlicher for making the box and general support.



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