Drums and Bees

Posted in Mixed Nuts on October 9th, 2008 by MadDog
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More strange connections. I love them. What do bees have with do with drums?

In the case of the kundu, a traditional drum of Melanesia, it seems that bees can be very important – at least one kind of bee.

This is a kundu:

A kundu

The resonate frequency of the kundu is very important; it must sound just right to fit in with the other instruments. I know little about drums, but my understanding is that most are tuned by adjusting the tightness of the drum head material. Have a look at this photo:

The head of a kundu drum

As you can see (click to enlarge), the material is lizard skin. Though this is unfortunate for the lizards, the skin is tough and durable. It’s also just stretchy enough to pull very tight and be bound into place by the fibre ring that you can see surrounding the head of the drum.

I’ve been told, however, that it isn’t possible to get the right frequency by adjusting the tightness of the drum head only. You need something else.

That’s where this little guy comes into the story:

The bee that allows the kundu to be tuned

If you look at the kundu head photo, you’ll see two black dots in the centre. The craftsmen usually make these little globs from the incredibly sticky beeswax obtained from the hives of the little bee above. There are other materials that are used for tuning. In fact the globs on the kundu above are not beeswax at all. They are made from some gooey substance derived from breadfruit.

I spent a considerable time at the corner of my veranda trying to get a photo of one of these little fellows coming in for a landing at his front door. I believe it’s the same species that I showed you a couple of days ago deep inside a hibiscus flower. The hibiscus in that photo is only about three metres from the hive.

The idea is that by adding mass to the head of the drum, you lower the resonant frequency. You can adjust it only downwards by adding mass, so you have to start out by stretching it very tightly to get a frequency higher than you want. Then you add the mass of the beeswax a little at a time until it is just right.

If the frequency is too low, the drummer holds the head of the drum near the flames of the fire (there is always a fire close by) to tighten the head and raise the frequency.

Isn’t that ingenious?

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