Lab time

Today we’re on lab time as we look at our bee samples on the big 6100 Scanning Electron Microscope. Inside: the roar and whoosh of the air con, chuntering of mechanical devices; outside: rain, rain, all day.
kayla's photo of plymouth electron micoscope centreDull flat cloud, drizzle circles the surface of the pond: two fish open-mouthed, a small carrot stick and a large barbecued orange sausage. Stuart got Bill’s matchbox out of the deep freeze so his bees would defrost. By 10 o’clock leaves were dripping, but it was still warm. On the way to Brunel Laboratory at 10.20 I had to use my umbrella and avoid the puddles.

We opened Bill’s matchbox and were surprised how small honey bees are when they’re dead: they have a bigger presence flying around, visiting flowers. Under the light microscope: honey-coloured, caramac, butterscotch, toffee; very hairy all over, their little legs all curled up beneath, and wings mostly closed; their eyes deep black.

Three bees with a full set of antennae and proboscis were chosen: one for a dorsal shot (looking straight down on her furry back), another that looked good from the side, and a third on its back so we could ‘film’ her mouth and look at the undercarriage. It took ages to prepare and coat the samples because there was so much moisture in their bodies. The fly we used in March had been lying on a windowsill in the sun, so had dried out nicely. We put the rest of Bill’s bees in the oven, in case we needed to mount some more.

On the SEM we could see that parts of the bees had collapsed and shrivelled, so we filmed the best bits. Zooming right in to the hairs on the abdomen we saw a miniature moorland landscape of moss and fir fronds; the end of the proboscis was a tangle of tubes (the tongue?) with a weird cactus-like structure poking out at the end (for smell/taste?), and there were thorns on the wing.

At lunchtime it was still raining, but harder. Streams poured down gutters, water rose in bubbling fountains from drains. Martin brought us his worker bees in a Swan matchbox, and some comb: pure white and made of smoothed out chewed wads of wax papier-mâché: so light and airy. A chunk of old comb was thick, heavy, granular, deep brown. Martin’s bees had been dead a while, and had all four wings out-stretched; with more colour variation and lighter eyes. The wings were iridescent, striped pearly pink, mauve and mint green; incredibly strong: I read the wings can go up to 230 BPS (beats per second).

We chose one of Martin’s bees with her body in a heroic flight pose, proboscis extended and her eyes bronzed copper colanders covered in tiny hairs. Pete prepared and coated her with gold, ready for our next session, and we left her in our sample drawer. I took Bill’s bees home: baked dry, they smelled of Crunchie.

Still raining. The next crop of peas almost washed out of their pots, and 6 inches of water in a bucket. Watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) directed by Julian Schnabel, based on Jean-Do Bauby’s book: paralysed in a fleshy carapace, locked inside an immobile exoskeleton, his world experienced through hearing and one fluttering eye. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski mediates Bauby’s sight through a watery swing-and-tilt lens that flexes between close-up and mid-shot, light and dark, creating the in-and-out-of-focusness that Schnabel calls “the texture of seeing“. Veiled fabrics drift in a sea breeze, a rush of expanded inner vision, imagination and memory; the red-black eyelid shutter stop-starts the image stream. Schnabel placed his own glasses over the camera lens for a greater subjectivity. To make Small World we projected a frame of found 35mm colour negative onto our tiny landscape and used an old photographic enlarger lens, a spectacle lens, lost glass marbles, fragments of mirror and other bits and pieces to create our hi def interior world.