wing beats

July 6, 2007

bombylius major

I have been making recordings of various flying insects.  Although each tends to produce a range of pitches, depending on what they are doing, they do all appear to inhabit their own peculiar pitch territories.  Interestingly (so far at least) I have found that these pitches do not appear to be evenly spread over the frequency spectrum but instead sort themselves into groups.

So far, the lowest pitch belongs to the macroglossum stellatarum which emits a fairly constant low E (one stave below the bass clef).  This is shared by the libellula depressa who also hovers around this note, but with more clackety wing noise.  Up a minor third is the xylocopa violacea (on a G) and sharing its pitch territory with the phyllopertha horticula (on an Ab) and the vespa crabo (on an A).  Up a further augmented fourth is the bumble bee (as yet not identified – there are about fifty different species!) which seems to buzz around Eb, and up another major third is the apis mellifera.  Finally (so far!) there is the bombylius major buzzing on a Bb (resting on top of the bass clef) and the vespula vulgaris on a B.

From knowing the pitches of the various buzzes, it is possible to then estimate the number of wing beats per second.  Hence my recorded insects were beating their wings in the range of around 40 times a second for the libellula depressa and about 250 times per second for the vespula vulgaris.  Apparently this increase of wing speed as the insects get smaller is because aerodynamic performance decreases with size, and so to compensate they have to flap faster.


low hum

July 5, 2007

macroglossum stellatarum

Perhaps the most impressive insect in the garden at the moment is the macroglossum stellatarum (hummingbird hawk-moth).  It seems to like the lavender at the front of the house, and can be found there from time to time hovering around the purple flowers.  It always appears to be on the move, darting in and out and probing for nectar or pollen by means of a proboscis that is almost as long as its body, no doubt enabling it to reach for food that is out of range of many other insects.

As it flies, its wings make a soft low hum around the E below the bass clef, similar to the dragonfly mentioned below, but without the clatter of the dragonfly’s wing noise.  So far, these two insects are contenders for the prize of lowest pitched buzz.

ultrasonic chirps

July 4, 2007

papilio machaon

I continued my research into ants and ultrasound last night and eventually discovered some papers on the subject.   It appears, after all, that some ants, at least, do make sound by using stridulation, although whether they do this to communicate with each other (for example as a distress call) or as some sort of echo-location system it is not known.  This would help to explain why my signal was made up of a repetition of the same note, each one being a separate ‘chirp’ component of the whole call.

Ultrasonic sounds are not uncommon in the insect world, or for that matter everyday recording.  Normally though they are simply part of the frequency range of an already audible signal, such as sibilance when people speak, or the call of a cricket.  What was most exciting about this find is that it could be a ‘hidden’ message totally out of the range of human hearing.

I have found some research by a Dr Hickling who recorded stridulation sounds of Black Fire Ants.  Although these are a different species, I do think there are similarities in the sounds.  I think mine is similar to the one he calls the ‘all is well’ signal.  Check out his recordings here.

microphone is heavy

July 3, 2007

formica rufa

Today I have been editing recordings taken from a formica rufa (wood ant) nest.  Within seconds of placing the microphone on the nest the ants were all over it, and so it was easy to record the ants moving and doing what they do.  I also experimented with miking up a dried leaf and recording the ants walking over that.

These particular ants are quite small (I have recorded heavier) and so I wasn’t able to record each ant’s individual steps as I had hoped.  I could however get a workable recording level when many ants were walking, although I had to keep remembering to keep my distance as these ants are very inquisitive, and they bite.  (They use formic acid – the same as stinging nettles).

Interestingly when I was doing my editing I noticed a (very) occasional ultrasonic signal at about 31kHz, the main part of which was a six-note phrase, all on the same note, and with the rhythm of “microphone is heavy”.  The strange thing is that from reading the literature on this ant (and ants in general) I have not been able to find any references to ultrasound transmission, and so I don’t know….. was it from the ants, and if not where did my ultrasonic signal come from?  Listen to a recording of it (at roughly a fortieth of the speed and pitch) here.


July 2, 2007

libellula depressa

The dragonflies that frequent one of the small ponds in ‘La Cité’ go under the name of libellula depressa, or depressed dragonfly.   This year because of the bad weather the females took longer to arrive.  This is good news for the males because more or less as soon as they have mated, they die.  So they got a few extra weeks of flying around until the females arrived.

The blue males hang around the pond and stake their territory, waiting for the smaller yellow coloured female to arrive.  The sound of the male’s flight is very quiet and low in pitch (around the note E on the first stave below the bass clef) and you can only just about hear them when they swoop past.  The female is even quieter.  However, when the two of them mate they do so in flight joining together at both ends (forming a sort of ring) and with both insects flying in unison and colliding wings there is a short twenty second burst of noise before they separate.

This is immediately followed by the female laying her eggs in the pond, hovering above the water and slowing her wing speed down so that she dips into the water and then increasing the wing speed to fly to another part of the pond to dip again.  This succession of audible glissandi is accompanied by the swooping sound of the male dragonfly as he takes guard, and then the show is over: they separate and the pond is quiet again.


July 1, 2007

humming lime tree

Day One at ‘La Cité des Insectes‘.  I am here to create a sound installation for their museum.   Although the weather is reasonable today, because is it has been so rainy much of the ambient insect soundscape is very minimal.  The field crickets have stopped singing and there just isn’t the ‘buzz’ one might expect from this time of year.

The lime tree, just outside the museum, however, is in full blossom and as such is a major attractor to the bees, and I’m sure wasps, hornets, and so on.  There must be thousands of these insects in the tree, as there is a constant hum emanating from the branches throughout the day.