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HONEYBEES

Picture of a Honeybee and a Flower

adapted from an article by

Robert Doolan

Used with the kind permission of the Creation Science Movement, 50 Brecon Avenue, Cosham, Portsmouth, England, P06 2AW.

Imagine you are a honeybee. You leave your hive one fine spring morning and scout around until you notice a field full of new flowers in bloom. The food back in your hive, which the 15,000 bees in your colony have fed on through the winter, has been getting low. But now in this field you have found a new food supply. So you fill your honey sac with nectar and fly the 250 metres (273 yards) back to your hive. The other bees do not yet know where to find the blooms you have discovered. Your brain is only the size of a pinhead, but it is obvious that if you are to utilize this new food source you will need help. By summer, your colony could number more than 80,000 bees, yet there will be mass starvation if the other bees rely solely upon your efforts to feed them with the little bit of pollen and nectar you will collect in each round trip. So how do you tell the other bees in your hive where to find the blossoms you have discovered?

In the early 1900s, an Austrian naturalist named Karl von Frisch puzzled over this curious problem. Fascinated by the ways honeybees worked together, von Frisch began some revealing studies into the life of these little creatures. What did he find? He found that one of the most remarkable characteristics of bees is the way they communicate. In fact, bees have one of the most extraordinary means of communication in the insect world.

Von Frisch discovered that bees express themselves not only by feeling and tasting, but also by “dancing.” To identify the location of a food source too distant from the hive to be smelled or seen by the other bees, the scout does a kind of dance on the honeycomb inside the hive. Other bees gather round and closely follow the dancer. They imitate her movements (all worker bees are female) and note the fragrance of the flowers from which the dancer gathered the nectar.

If the new food source is nearby, say within about fifty metres (55 yards) of the hive, the bee does a circular dance on the surface of the honeycomb (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Honeybee Round Dance

She moves around two or three centimetres (an inch or so), then circles in the opposite direction. This tells the other bees that the food is close by. The scent they detect on her alerts them to what the new food smells like. The other bees then leave the hive and fly around in ever-widening circles until they find the new supply of flowers.

If the new source of nectar or pollen is distant, the scout makes an ingenious alteration to her dance.

Figure 1: Honeybee Figure-Eight Dance

She will dance the shape of a figure eight, with intermittent movements across the middle of the figure (see Figure 2). The distance that requires a figure-eight dance instead of a round dance varies between subspecies of bees. But this does not cause confusion among the bees because the changeover distance is constant in each hive.

Wiggles

Every movement by the scout has meaning for the other bees. They can tell the distance they are from a food source by the number of times a dancer circles during a given interval, and also by her wiggling abdomen. The greater the distance, the more slowly she wiggles. The direction of the food is revealed by the direction and angle the dancing bee cuts across the diameter of the circle. If she wiggles across the circle straight up, the other bees know they will find the food by flying towards the sun (see Figure 3). If she cuts the circle straight down, they know they will have to fly away from the sun. Should the dancing bee cut across the circle at an angle, the other bees know they must fly to the right or left of the sun at the same angle the dancer moved to the right or left of an imaginary vertical line. This dazzling display of the honeybee dancers is truly a striking feature of the insect world.

When we consider the complicated steps of the dance, and the detailed information conveyed and understood through it by all the world's honeybees (von Frisch took twenty years to decipher it), we are entitled to be incredulous about claims that this process evolved.

Inventive Bee

Let's try to imagine the system evolving. A bee discovers a field in bloom. She returns to her hive and no one else knows where she filled her honey sac. She can't tell them herself, so the hive has to wait until individual bees haphazardly chance upon the same field, or she has to keep going back and forth, hoping someone will follow her. Even worse, she may not remember how to get back to the field herself!

Picture of a Honeybee Dance Pattern to Find Food

Now let's suppose that one day an enterprising bee manages to invent a dance. How would she communicate to the others what it meant? How would she ever explain the geometry involved - that the angle she walks across the diameter of the circle is equal to the angle between the sun and the food source?

What if the sun goes down before the other bees understand? How does she explain she has invented one dance for a food supply nearby and another for a supply a long distance away? How does she tell them that if she wiggles very slowly it means the field is distant and if she wiggles very fast it means the field is not far? How will they know that if the dancer walks up the honeycomb they should fly towards the sun, but if she walks down they must fly in the opposite direction? Even more important, if this process evolved gradually over a long time, how would all of the ancestor bees have survived while the system of communication was evolving? And if they survived without this complicated interaction, why invent a new system?

House Hunting

The uses for the honeybee dance are not limited to communicating the location of a source of food. The dance of the figure eight is also used when bees are selecting a new home site. If the hive grows too large, the queen may leave with part of the colony to search for new home. When she does, she will leave behind one or more special eggs from which a new queen will hatch. The old queen and her swarm first congregate somewhere, such as on the branch of a tree. Worker bees then scout around for a suitable new home. Any scout finding a spot with possibilities returns to the others and tells them where her favoured site is situated by doing the figure-eight dance on the surface of the cluster of bees. Other bees then fly out to inspect each new site reported and return to tell the rest of the colony what they think of it. The energy of their dancing reflects their enthusiasm about the suitability of the site. Finally, after perhaps several days of house hunting, one of the sites will gain overwhelming favour and the swarm will move off to start a new hive there. One researcher, Martin Lindauer, watched this dance contest for four days, noting the directions and distances of potential sites. He discerned the site that was rapidly gaining