A Drone of Bees

A midday swarm in San Francisco's Outer Richmond District

This afternoon, at around 2:50pm California time, I was in the backyard with my 23-month-old. She was just starting to use some chalk we’d gotten her yesterday when I heard this unfamiliar sound: a drone, a kind of buzzing. I looked around and slowly what came into view over the north fence was something that resembled a small dust storm, and that revealed itself soon as a lot of bees. A whole lot of bees. I grabbed my kid and pulled her into our house, one stick of chalk still in her little hand. Closed the windows. Ran to the back bedroom and looked out. Our backyard was engulfed with bees, just filled with them, like a side-loading clothes dryer filled with marbles and running at full speed. I shot 45 seconds or so of video on my phone, though I’m not sure there’s much to see. I post it here for environmental posterity. It makes more sense in still frames, though there are moments when the swarming becomes apparent. The sound was muffled by glass, but the droning was quite clear — frighteningly out of control, and yet eerily suggesting some sense of control. There is no chaos to a swam of bees. It feels directed, agreed upon, consensual. Within a couple minutes the bees had moved west to another neighbor’s yard. As I type this there are still a lot more bees than usual in our backyard. And the ones in the neighbor’s yard (to the north, where this originated) are moving around weirdly fast. Usually they just go from bush to bush, but they are zooming left then right then back then forth, zigzagging like crazy.

The experience reinforced for me how central the drone is to natural sound, how it is primordial, in contrast with song, which speaks of civilization. And yet this drone was the sound of a civilization, a swarm of bees acting as one, a nomad hive. As readers of this site know, I spend a lot of time listening to drones — to the natural environment, to the built environment, and to music built from drones. This bee drone, felt and heard firsthand, was entirely unfamiliar.

The experience also emphasized the value of sound in one sense of one’s environment. The only reason I so quickly recognized the nearing bees was because of my awareness of the various drones and related sounds that are normal to our neighborhood. The bees stood out before they were too close because I heard one particularly odd drone among many — a bad note, as it were.

Video posted at vimeo.com/disquiet.

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