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HOTY2017

The Beekeeper Who Makes Synth Music With His Bee Colonies

Bioni Samp translates bee behaviors and sounds into electronic music to help raise awareness of the ecological issues threatening them.

Troy Farah

Rei Watanabe

Tinkering with retro synthesizers is nothing new—but beekeeper Bioni Samp isn’t your typical oscillator geek. He records and analyzes the frequencies of his bees, such as the soothing “songs” queen bees chirp to their hives, and uses them in his compositions. He wields a hive frame “scanner” to pick up electromagnetic smog and sticks electrodes in his homegrown honey to reap its rich, viscous sound.

Bioni (pronounced BEE-own-ee) Samp’s music is abstract, glitchy, and noisy, not unlike Throbbing Gristle or Nurse With Wound, but often rhythmic, and dancey as well, kinda like if Aphex Twin was really into bugs. Samp—whose real name is a secret—lives in North London, acting as a kind of urban bee shaman. Now in his early 50s, he’s been an apiarian enthusiast since he was seven and now performs wearing a stereotypical beekeeping suit.

With his music, Samp hopes to raise awareness of colony collapse disorder, the plague that has killed millions of honeybee hives worldwide. Billions of bees die each year, due to a combination of Varroa mite infestations, climate change, and pesticides such as neonicotinoids. But while bringing awareness to this delicate issue is Samp’s goal, he isn’t preachy about it.

“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 says over video chat. “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.”

His art and sound installations have travelled across the globe, performing at environmentally-conscious festivals and art galleries as far flung as Slovakia, Poland, Canada, Austria, and others.

“In the U.K., beekeeping is kind of like a gentleman's hobby—it's not quite seen seriously like it is there in Central Europe,” Samp says. “So when I go to like Czechia, I get interviewed in the national papers, I'm seen as an important artist. I met somebody there and they said their father even knew of me and he was about 80.”

Samp’s gear is part function, part symbolic. For example, one of his setups has three oscillators, representing the hierarchy of a hive: one for the workers, one for the drones, one for the queen. Some of his other bizarre, original instrument creations include the Electronic Beesmoker, BeeVerb, BFX, and the Binaural Beeframe.

Apart from his custom-made hardware, Samp also employs numerology in his compositions, using the detailed logs from his beehive diaries as inputs on digital synthesizer programs like 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.”

Read More: I Visited A CSI Crime Lab, But For Bees

But a real breakthrough came to Samp when he discovered honey could be used as a resistor, which limits electrical flow through a circuit, adjusting the otherworldly sound of his homemade Hive Synthesizer. He first tried this with propolis, a type of tree resin that bees use as glue in their hives, but it didn’t work nearly as well. “I liked the idea that having an organic element,” Samp says. “Not being all electronics.”

Like many beekeepers, Samp talks to his insects, and even meditates on their soothing buzz. Likewise, he speaks with a relaxing, droning British accent that could induce ASMR in some people—it certainly seemed to in me. Samp says every colony has its own personality, like a dog—his bees can be moody when it rains and don’t really tolerate other people besides himself.

“It's bizarre, you know, bees got as good a smell as a bloodhound and they know my smell,” Samp says. “When somebody else comes along with aftershave on or perfume, they hate that—they really try and sting them. They also hate mobile phones…when my phone rings they try and sting my pocket. They really don't like the hot frequencies from mobile phones.”

Samp was the subject of a 360º BBC mini-documentary, The Resistance of Honey, which was nominated for the Raindance Film Festival's Best VR Sound Design Experience. It acts as a kind of day-in-the-life of the beekeeper, showing his studio and the bee house he co-designed and built, housing three different colonies.

Once, a film festival rejected showing the doc, which Samp attributes to pesticide companies sponsoring the event. He won’t name which festival or which company, but a few months later, his film was rejected again from another festival. He later found out the festival was sponsored by the same pesticide companies.

“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 says. “When I started beekeeping many, many years ago, I didn't realize it'd be so political by now.”

But Samp tries not to focus on things like that, saying that complaining would allow “them” to win. So that’s what he’s doing. In addition to prepping for touring, dates TBA, Samp says he’s about 90 percent finished with a new album, he has a publishing deal for an “alternative beekeeper’s diary,” and is designing a rotating hexagonal sculpture that gives off a magnetic field that creates sound.

“That's where they've got you in the end—if it actually prevents you from doing more work because you're overthinking about it,” Samp says. “The best thing I can do to counteract that is just to come up with something new.”

You can check out Samp’s music on Soundcloud or Bandcamp.

Humans of the Year is a series about the people building a better future for everyone. Follow along here.

Troy Farah is a journalist from California. His reporting has appeared in Undark, The Outline, VICE and others. Follow him on Twitter @filth_filler or visit troyfarah.com.