Mark Grossman: Electric Bees

13 February 2014

Nature seems like magic.  For centuries we’ve marveled at natural mysteries.  How did the ants communicate and maintain their coordinated and orderly activities with such amazing precision?  And how did bees communicate with each other?  How did they identify different types of flowers?  Then, how did they select the flowers with honey?  It all seemed like magic.

But, so does a stage magician’s mind-reading act. The magician’s assistant mingles with members of the audience who tell the assistant secrets or show the assistant secret objects. Though too far away to see or hear the secret, the magician knows the secret or the object instantly. It seems like magic, but it isn’t. The magician’s assistant is wired for sound – “wearing a wire.”

Now, researchers suggest that honeybees, among themselves, and, together with the assistance and support of the flowers, have been fooling us for thousands of years.  They’ve been fooling us into thinking they had some kind of magical instinct.  But, all along, they’ve been “wearing a wire.”

Well, at least, we’ve learned this much.  Honeybees generate and pick up an electrical charge when they fly.  The charge is so strong that honeybees emit electrical fields.  The bee’s chief form communication is the waggle dance.  The waggle dancing bee informs its audience that it has found a rich area full of flowers loaded with honey.  The bee’s dance is intended to inform (and persuade) the rest of the bees in the hive.

At least that’s what we always thought was going on.  But, now, researchers have discovered that the dancing bee emits an electric field.  That field is so strong that it has been known to move the antenna of the bees “in the audience.”  The dancing bee’s electrical field becomes even stronger when combined with sound – a sound like buzzing.

All this time, scientists have been carefully observing the waggle dancers “steps” (choreography), while the dancing bee may just be talking to the audience electrically — sort of like the bee version of a walkie-talkie.  Maybe, bees don’t even need to waggle dance when they “talk.” Maybe, they just like to waggle when they talk on bee version of a cell phone.

As if that wasn’t enough of a “buzz-kill” for those of us who used to be wrapped up in the magic and mystery of bee communication, it turns out that flowers are in on the “act” as well.  Researchers at the University of Bristol discovered that, like bees, flowers also have electrical fields.  And guess what.  The flowers’ electrical fields seem to communicate with bumblebees.

Like some transportation and reconnaissance computers, a flower’s electrical field seems to tell the bee everything – flower type, volume of pollen, time of last bee visit, etc.  It’s sort of like a modern air traffic control computer.  It does everything for the operator.  No wonder bees are so well organized, what else do they have to do?

It may turn out that the bee’s elaborate dance and the flowers’ colors, shapes, and odor, may be just be so much “smoke and mirrors” to conceal their equivalent of “on board computers” handling everything.