Meet the scientist
Professor of behavioural ecology, Queen Mary University of London
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.