Swarm (ASX), 2012 

an apicultural model of the global speculative financial system
Alec Finlay

honey-bee recordings, Chris Watson
sound and data, Jamie Allen & Bernhard Garnicnig

commissioned by 18th Biennale Sydney

This installation on Cockatoo Island, Sydney, translates beehives into a model of the global economy. The intense fluctuations of the stock market are reprocessed as the ‘buzz’ of Australian honey-bees.

In a grass area, among disused warehouses, workshops, the remnants of shipbuilding and a convict prison, the hives create an evanescent pastoral. Sound samples broadcast continuously from 10 multi-storied wooden beehives, each one with an acronym that identifies it with a major stock exchange: – New York, NYSE; Toronto, TSX; Sao Paulo, BM&F; London, LSE; Frankfurt, FW&B; Mumbai, BSE; Shanghai, SSE; Hong Kong, HKEX; Tokyo, TSE; and Sydney, ASX. 

The stream of buzzing the hives produce is processed via a synthesis algorithm, so that the sound varies in grain density and volume in direct response with the feed of information from the market. This corner patch of lawn is a model of the voluminous activity of the world market, from dawn to dusk. The vibrant sound of the bees' labour threatens to tip over into rage, true to the recalcitrance of the market and banking systems, whose imperious attitude to the collapse that they caused has been such a galling feature of the crash.

Swarm (ASX) is a snapshot of speculative finance translated into the natural ecosystem of bees: dynamic, in flux, undergoing crisis, confronting potential catastrophe.

The installation is also realized as a web-project, returning the work to the ceaseless buzz of global communication; rumour, report and speculation, trends traveling at high velocity, carrying notional values and future predictions on switchbacks, triggering massive waves of euphoria and panic.

The web version offers the specific example of the massive fluctuation and fall of stock market values that defined the global crash of 2008.

The viewer can also listen to samples of 10 selected stock markets, representing their current trading activity.


   a hive is cell, cradle and larder

   bees are the souls of the summer

   hives give new meaning to flowers

warré hive & photograph, Tim Malfroy

The beehive design used in the artwork is based on a Warré beehive, an older style that places less stress on bees than the more intensive contemporary hive.

Warré-style hives are now being manufactured by one of Australia's leading natural beekeepers, Tim Malfroy.

   Langstroth's perfect hive

   a perfect hive 
   will not kill a bee

   a perfect hive
   allows for the honey's
   removal in the most
   convenient, beautiful
   & saleable forms

   a perfect hive
   succeeds when we study
   bees' habits and comply
   as far as is practicable

   a perfect hive
   should not reward
   the careless or ignorant

   there is no such thing
   as a perfect hive

      (L. I. Langstroth, On the Hive and the Honey-bee)

The bee library 

24 book-nests for solitary bees
Alec Finlay with Rachel Bollen, 2012
Cockatoo Island, 18th Biennale of Sydney 

Swarm (ASX) is accompanied by a companion project, the bee library, installed in two laurel camphor trees alongside the beehives.

Together the two works juxtapose traditional and contemporary representations of economy and knowledge – ‘money’ and ‘honey’. The bee library features 24 specially constructed ‘book-nests’ for wild or ‘solitary’ bees.

If the honeybee is an ancient symbol of virtuous economy, being variously applied to the collective labour of society, capitalism and communitarianism, then the solitary bee, which considered unproductive in economic terms, stands apart from human culture and represents a romantic symbol of nature and ecology.

bookshelf, the bee library, Cockatoo Island

The bee library processes bee-related texts derived from the 24 books. Once read, the books are converted into nests – the book functions as a roof, with bamboo, wire-netting and water-proofing – while the residue of poems is preserved as a blog. Reading gleans knowledge, which writing refines into poetry, as nectar is refined to honey.

The nests are not intended to last. The slow aging process of the indoor library is here supplanted for the rapid effects of weathering; paper will flute and decay in the humidity and damp of a Sydney winter.

We may take our cue from the bees themselves, who survive for only a brief time – though not brief to them

The books are bee-themed but they resonate widely, picking up some of the themes identified in the Biennial, all our relations.

For instance, the classic contemporary account of Colony Collapse Disorder, A World Without Bees, offers a parallel with the intensification of the economy and the shift toward speculation. Similar pressures are applied within agriculture, where modification and pesticides have created a crisis that threatens our common future.  By contrast, Khalifmann’s Marxist account of bees, records his scientific attempts to improve or perfect apiculture – a reminder that political philosophy has always informed natural science, underlined by the presence of Marx’s analysis of capital and surplus value, a bee-nest with a sting in its tail.

In terms of solutions, as a culture, or cultures, we still turn to nature for analogies of healing and change. In their index of progressive thought and re-evaluation of human relations, the curators of the Biennale cite Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy as one such key text, a model for relational artworks of all kinds, and social renewal.

If it is suggested that art has no role to play in comprehending or adjusting the machinations of the financial 'hive', consider for a moment that, when asked by the Queen – who else more relevant in the context of Swarm ASX – to explain how the great crash of 2008 could have occurred, unforeseen by the plethora of economic risk-takers and risk-assesors, the confession came (from the British Academy): 

"It was a failure of the collective imagination, Your Majesty, of many bright people, both in the UK and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole."

Avarice is a specialism. Mathematical laws are intrinsically divorced from reality. Financial systems have evolved as a specialist branch of mathematics applied upon the ground of economic reality, but, as with every form of specialization and intensification, the financial system runs the risk of a failure, even catastrophe, by dint of an inability or blind refusal to see beyond the skewed and inflated time structures the system itself has created. Veiled in the trappings of rationalism and number, the system is revealed in this crisis to be cultish and aggressively usurious.

Art, Erin Manning suggests, is 'the memory of the future'. The honeybee has no capability for foresight beyond its day, a day in which its body is a clock and compass, registering sun, seeking energy. But bee society remains a critical symbol of our awareness – human, biological, planetary – of time, constructing an ecological measure of the future, as in Maeterlinck's classic account of a mystical 'spirit of the beehive'

   the bees share
   their work in common

   giving their love
   to what lies ahead of them


   the bees' god is the future
   and they desire to live

   as long as the world itself
   in those that come after them

   to the bees their hive
   revolves around the queen

   She is its intelligence
   She represents their destiny

      (Maurice Maeterlinck, tr. Alfred Sutro, The Life of the Bee)

Thomas Seeley, Honeybee Democracy


   spread your wings 
   give the signal  

   flight deferred 
   becomes a ritual       

      (after Seeley, Honeybee Democracy)  

In a contemporary account such as Thomas Seeley's, where science strips away Maeterlinck's mysticism, and yet is still willing to assert that individual bees share a collective awareness of their common interest. 

The bees dance their decision into consciousness.

   all life
   to the light
   from which
   life comes

   bee dances
   to the sun

   if it’s dark
   then the bees
   will dance
   to a candle

      (Robert Duncan, The HD Book)

Other books in The bee library refer back to ancient bee myths, such as Levi-Struass, and Jane Ellen Harrison’s account of the sacred bees of Delphi, where the shamanic ‘buzzing’ of the priestesses reverberates with pre-verbal origins of speech and with the buzz of the market in Swarm (ASX).

   Delphi (after Jane Ellen Harrison)

   the priestess
   was a bee

   the meslissae
   her honey-priestesses

   hummed & swarmed

In equal measure, this buzz is the trading of the stock market, and another form of prophecy, a buzz directed toward the future, reverberating from the beehives.

Hölldobler & Wilson’s study of insect society, The Superorganism, translates bee communication into a contemporary symbol, as science represents the myth of species as computer. Curtis Roads offers a contemporary account of the auditory, musical composition and the science of microsound, which informed the data synthesis broadcast from the hives.

The bee library: a bibliography
1. Benjamin, Alison & McCallum, Brian, A World Without Bees (London: Guardian Books, 2008)

2. Dadant. C. P., First Lessons in Bee Keeping (Illinois: American Bee Journal, 1962)

3. Cotton, William Charles, My Bee Book (Surrey: Kingsmead Publications, 1970)

4. Frisch, Karl von., Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968)

5. Harrison, Jane Ellen, A Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (London: Cambridge University Press, 1922)

6. Hölldobler, Bert & Wilson, Edward O., line drawings by Margaret C. Nelson, The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008)

7. Imms, A. D., Insect Natural History (London: Bloomsbury Books, 1990)

8. Khalifman, I., Bees: A Book on the Biology of the Bee-Colony and the Achievements of Bee Science (Moscow:
Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1953)

9. Kritsky, Gene., The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture (New York: OUP USA, 2010)

10. Langstroth, L. I., On the Hive and the Honey-bee (Illinois: American Bee Journal, 1923)

11. Levi-Strauss, Claude, From Honey to Ashes (His Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol. 2) (London: HarperCollins, 1973)

12. Lindauer, Martin, Communication Among Social Bees (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971)

13. Lubbock, Sir John, Ants, Bees and Wasps: a record of observations on the habits of the social hymenoptera (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1882)

14. Maeterlinck, Maurice, trans. Alfred Sutro. The Life of the Bee (London: George Allen & Co., 1913)

15. Marx, Karl, Theories of Surplus Value: Part 1 (London: Laurence & Wishart, 1969)

16. Pausanias, Guide to Greece, Vol. 2: Southern Greece (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971)

17. Ramírez, Juan Antonio, The Beehive Metaphor: From Gaudí to Le Corbusier (London: Reaktion Books, 2000)

18. Roads, Curtis, Microsound (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The MIT Press, 2001)

19. Root, E. R. & Root A. I., The A B C and X Y Z of Bee Culture (Medina, Ohio, The A. I. Root Company, 1913)

20. Seeley, Thomas D., Honeybee Democracy (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010)

21. Beck, Bodog Felix, Honey and Health: A Nutrimental, Medicinal and Historical Commentary (New York: Robert McBride and Co., 1938)

22. Thomson, D'Arcy, On Growth and Form (London: Cambridge University Press, 1966)

23. Stachelhaus, Heiner, Joseph Beuys (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991)

24. Wheeler, William Morton, The Social Insects: Their Origin and Evolution (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1928)


with thanks to Mark Licari, John Watts & Eamonn McLoughlin at Sydney; Rachel Bollen, Luke Allan, Jamie Allen, Bernhard Garnicnig & Chris Watson

photographs by Alec Finlay & Mark Licari

Chris Watson's bee audio was mixed at Wired Lab


Swarm (ASX) & the bee library on Biennale of

Tim Malfroy: Malfroy's Gold

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