Bee Celestial Navigation and Non-Human Intelligence
Bees practice celestial navigation to communicate the position of the sun through dance.
Credit: L.R. Doyle

Millions of years ago a group of wasps ?decided to? become vegetarians and so today we have the bee. Some of their cousins ?decided to? quit flying and so became the ants, but that is another story. Although only about 20% of bees are social, honey bees are very social indeed. It has been stated by several biologists that, if it were not for the honey bee pollinating plants, humans would only last 3 or 4 years as our food supply would disappear.

The female honey bees are the workers of the hive. First, they learn to babysit, then they learn the construction trade (specializing, of course, in hexagonal wax structures), and eventually take on the daunting task of navigating in the outside world. Honey bees have been known to travel to find honey over 10 kilometers away from their hives ? the equivalent of a human flying from San Francisco to Denver to get some pollen. It takes about 6 bees life work, and thousands of miles flown, to make one teaspoon of honey.

Bees are the only other species, to date, that have been shown to communicate with symbolic language?that is, they can ?talk? about details of something that is not present. (We note that psychologists dispute the use of the terms ?symbolic? being applied to any non-human communication systems, but bee scientists regularly apply this term to describe bee language.) And what do bees ?talk? about? Mostly astronomy ? in particular about the Sun; where it is as compared to where the flowers are. And how do they ?talk?? Mostly they dance!

We know of three languages that bees use; it has been postulated that they have several more. The easiest is the Round Dance. Basically when a bee finds a nectar source nearby she comes back to the hive and dances around in a circle giving out samples; (for humans this works well at ice cream stores). The Round Dance tells the other bees to go out and sniff around for the source ? it is very close.

Another dance is known as the DVAV Dance ? basically a kind of bee belly dance. This dialect is reserved for internal hive politics?who is to be the next queen? Is it a good day to swarm?? And so on.

But the most studied language of the bees is the Waggle Dance. When a bee finds a nectar source farther away, she comes into the hive and gets some of the other ladies to gather around. Although it is dark, they can feel how she dances and also taste a bit of the quality of nectar she has brought back. She then starts this special dance over the combs. If more than one bee is dancing, eventually, which source to go to first will be decided democratically; it is ?discussed? until the vote is unanimous.?

In the waggle dance ?up? is always the direction to the Sun. The bees have little muscles in their necks that can tell which direction is vertical in the dark. The angle from the Sun to the nectar source is then the angle at which the scout bee dances from the vertical, indicating the angle at which the others must navigate.

But how far away is the flower? As the scout bee (sometimes called the ?recruiter bee?) dances, the number of waggles she does in the correct angular direction before turning around to begin again is how far the honey source is in bee units. Different types of honeybees have slightly different units of measurement. Finally, the time she takes doing the dance indicates how much of a head wind can be expected. This tells the other bees how much fuel (honey) to tank up on to make their trip there and back.

Many remarkable experiments have been done with bees over the past hundred years?how they use polarized light to see the Sun on a cloudy day, how they can understand the landscape as a map and so don?t need to follow the same route back to the hive that they took going out, how they know where the Sun is even after it sets and so can forage during a full Moon, and many more.

But I was particularly intrigued by a serendipitous experiment I read about recently that occurred when some university scientists were training bees to go farther and farther away for nectar so they could determine the precision of their navigational directions to each other. They placed some nectar close to the hive and then moved it out 25% farther every day until, after a while, the nectar source was quite far away. This required quite precise directions from the scout bees to the others in order to allow them to find a spot this far away?in other words, the angle of the waggle dance had to be smaller the farther the distance.

They were doing this experiment, which had been going on for many days, when the professor got a call from his graduate student. The student?s car had broken down so he had been unable to re-place the nectar source the extra 25% farther that morning. The professor said he would do it, then, that afternoon.

When the professor arrived at the nectar source there were no bees present. But when he arrived at the place where the nectar should have been for that day (but had not been moved there yet), there were all the bees waiting for him! Not only had the bees gotten the math correct (25% farther), but the implication is that they had demonstrated the imagination to be able to picture the future by picturing the nectar?not where it was?but where it was going to be! The professor wrote that he would never have done such an experiment on purpose since he never would have thought that the bees could have been so intelligent!

Besides basically doing all the work to bring us fruits, vegetables, and other pollination-requiring plants ? plus honey and beeswax - bees remind us not to underestimate the expression of intelligence from any of our fellow (or, in this case, our lady) species.? So to bee or not to bee is not the question. We have to bee, and we should be grateful to have such reliable, symbiotic friends to share our planet with.

So what does all this have to do with SETI (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence)? Well the three main requirements for producing extraterrestrial communications are a communication system, advanced tool use, and astronomy. Bees demonstrate non-human skills in all three. And the more we can learn from them (and other species) the more prepared we should be for a truly alien signal if and when it is received from extraterrestrials that have not grown up on the same planet nor shared the same star with us for millions of years.?

(For further details about this serendipitous experiment, see: Gould, J.L. and Gould, C.G., The Honey Bee, Scientific American Library Series.)

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