Meet the sci­en­tist

Pro­fes­sor of be­havioural ecol­ogy, Queen Mary Univer­sity of Lon­don

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Af­ter years of study­ing bees, why not re­lease an al­bum ded­i­cated to them?

I re­alised my fas­ci­na­tion with bees couldn’t be cap­tured purely in my sci­en­tific writ­ings.

Af­ter decades of peer­ing into the small but per­fectly formed minds of bees, Lars Chittka is now writ­ing and per­form­ing songs about them – much to his chil­dren’s em­bar­rass­ment.

There can’t be many rock bands that can say they played their first gig for the Royal So­ci­ety, the world’s old­est sci­en­tific academy. But then there are few rock bands whose front­man is a pro­fes­sor of sen­sory and be­havioural ecol­ogy.

By day, Lars Chittka stud­ies bees. He’s par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in how they sense, process and re­spond to in­for­ma­tion about their sur­round­ings. His re­search also hap­pens to have shone a light on just how com­plex be­hav­iour can be when it’s gov­erned by a brain con­sist­ing of only a mil­lion neu­rones ( for com­par­i­son, hu­mans have a hun­dred bil­lion).

“Bee brains are not sim­ple; they’re just very small,” says Chittka. “But they are also very el­e­gantly minia­turised.”

His work has fea­tured fre­quently in BBC Wildlife. There were the bum­ble­bees his team trained to pull strings or ma­noeu­vre balls into holes to ac­cess a re­ward. Or the dis­cov­ery that hon­ey­bees can recog­nise hu­man faces. Or the ex­per­i­ments sug­gest­ing that bee be­hav­iour is me­di­ated by some­thing akin to emo­tional states.

In case that’s not suf­fi­ciently rock-and-roll, by night, Chittka is also gui­tarist, singer and song­writer for the band Killer Bee Queens.

“I played gui­tar when I was a teenager, but I didn’t have the courage to em­bark fully on a mu­sic ca­reer, so I chose bi­ol­ogy, which was an­other pas­sion of mine. I had a fam­ily and raised two chil­dren while the gui­tar gath­ered dust.”

But chil­dren grow up. At which point, par­ents can get a sec­ond wind. “I re­alised that my fas­ci­na­tion with bees couldn’t be cap­tured purely in my sci­en­tific writ­ings,” he says. “I started writ­ing words first and then started turn­ing those into songs.”

Chittka is not the first to have been cre­atively in­spired by so­cial in­sects. Peo­ple have long peered into hives and seen a utopian model for hu­man so­ci­ety. “It’s funny,” he says. “Bees can be a Rorschach test for so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion.” But that would be to ig­nore the vast dif­fer­ences be­tween in­sect so­ci­eties and hu­man ones. “Their so­cial, sen­sory and psy­cho­log­i­cal worlds are com­pletely dif­fer­ent from our own, and are hardly com­pa­ra­ble.”

For Chittka, bees are more a source of metaphor and won­der than ide­ol­ogy, hence songs about a bee­keeper’s re­cur­ring night­mare; the love story be­tween bees and flow­ers; and a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween a space-bee and David Bowie.

But he didn’t stop at writ­ing songs. He re­cruited a band, played that gig with the Royal So­ci­ety, and has now re­leased an al­bum, Strange Flow­ers, the pro­ceeds of which are go­ing to the char­ity Buglife.

One can’t help won­der­ing what his chil­dren make of it all. “Oh, they find it ter­ri­bly em­bar­rass­ing,” says Chittka. Hap­pily, em­bar­rass­ing one’s chil­dren is among a par­ent’s great­est plea­sures in life. Stu­art Black­man

The Euro­pean hon­ey­bee is among the species Chittka has stud­ied. Be­low: Killer Bee Queens on stage.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.