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The Honey Bee: Queen of Surprises

A recurring theme in a course I teach, “Animal Behavior, Animal Minds, and Animal Protection,” is that animals are good at what is useful to them. A salmon isn’t known for building machines, but she is a master at finding her way back from the ocean to her natal stream to spawn. An orangutan won’t build a nest, but he has a botanist’s brain for identifying over 200 species of fruiting plants, as well as the timing and location of their bounties.

So it is with the honey bee. Having a one-milligram brain containing about 20 thousand neurons (our brains have an estimated 90 billion) imposes limitations, but the challenges of finding food that varies in distance, direction, quality and timing combined with millennia of tightly-knit social living have led to some jaw-dropping bee abilities that throw into doubt many of the assumptions we make about animal minds.

I was reminded of the astonishing navigational and communicative skills of honey bees recently at a lecture by Princeton professor and ethologist James Gould at a Thinking Animals event in New York City. Gould is among a cadre of animal behaviorists who have devised clever experiments to probe the inner world of honey bees and uncovering skills that he allows can be downright “spooky.”

Pioneering studies by Nobelist Karl von Frisch established the now-famous “waggle dance,” in which a honey bee returning from foraging communicates the exact location of a food source by performing a repeated, patterned dance inside the hive. Attentive observers gather round to decode the information revealed by the dance: distance to the flower patch by the length of each waggle run, and compass direction relative to the sun by the dance orientation relative to vertical. As time elapses between locating food and performing the dance (e.g., distant food and/or long dances), the dancing bee accommodates for the sun’s changing direction by changing the angles of her dance. After the finale, audience members fly to the food.

The Honey Bee: Queen of Surprises
The author uses a Q-tip to feed sugar-water to a bumblebee he rescued after a rainstorm

Bees have enviable mathematical skills. This was discovered by training a forager to fly the perimeter of a broad, 8-story building to get a treat of sugar-water. Although she remained faithful to this less efficient route, the other workers responded by interpolating the shortest path—directly over the top of the building. This makes sense since the dance conveys the coordinates of the food and nothing of obstacles or landmarks along the way.

When sugar-dishes are placed in a sequential pattern on land—for instance, 50 yards due east of the hive on day one, 100 yards on day two, 150 yards on day three, and 200 yards on day four, by day five forager bees will already be waiting at the 250 yard location before the researchers even arrive to set out the dishes! This finding is especially puzzling given that flowers don’t bloom in predictable patterns. No one knows how or why bees can do this, but it may be an emergent skill derived from bees’ keen cognitive awareness of time and space.

Gould’s team transported bees by boat to the middle of a lake then provided them with sugar-water. When these bees found their way back to the hive and danced the exact location of the food, observing workers disregarded the instructions and didn’t visit the boat. The researchers then fed bees at spots progressively closer to shore. These locations also were ignored. But when the feeding locations reached land, bees came and fed. Worker bees seem to know that flowers don’t normally bloom in the middle of a lake.

Another intrigue is that bees sometimes make a distinctive “whine” when viewing a waggle dance. This begging signal might translate as, “Please, may I have some of that nectar you just found” Curiously, an ingenious dancing robot bee developed by researchers will eventually be stung repeatedly because the robot is not equipped to dispense food in response to the whine. Gould believes the snubbed workers conclude the dancing “bee” must be an alien. I wonder if the bees might attack out of frustration. With all the other surprises honey bees have so far had in store for us, I wouldn’t put it past them to get emotional.

Image Source: John/Flickr