Monday, October 12, 2009

I can't hear what you're saying with this buzzing in my ears

The wiggle dance of the bees: one of the wonders of evolution. Imagine these tiny creatures, their brains probably the size of the head of a pin (I'm guessing, I'm doing all the rest of the work here, YOU go look it up) communicating the location of food to their hivemates with a complex choreography indicating direction relative to the position of the sun and distance correlating to the duration of the dance.

It's an uncontroversial fact about the amazing abilities of animals. Or is it? According to a recent article in New Scientist, some researchers have begun to have doubts. They claim that under controlled experimentation where bees can't also use cues like smell, they - like many of us - don't seem to be exactly paying attention:

A litany of recent evidence suggests that while bees can follow the dance, they often fail to decode it properly, or ignore it completely.

In one study, GrĂ¼ter and his colleague Walter Farina of the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina found that among bees that attend to a dance, 93 per cent ignore the instructions and head to a food source they already know about (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol 275, p 1321). Similarly, bees often seem unable to follow the instructions. Some watch more than 50 runs and make several sorties out of the hive but never find the food.

The result of this is that some scientists downplay the importance of the dance as a method of communication, but these scientists clearly know little about bad behavior. Your spouse or teenager may ignore your request to take out the trash, and your idiot friend may disregard your recommendation for a fantastic Thai restaurant and head straight to McDonald's, and we all know people who can't follow directions to save their lives. No one concludes from that, that human language isn't a valid communication system, right? We already know that bees are drunks and druggies, so what do you expect?

Thanks to Misterqueue that I didn't have to go out and take my own picture of a bee this time.

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