People sure do believe in some weird things:- Ghosts, God and Government Conspiracies. Whatever a person’s need, they’re bound to either invent or appropriate an imaginary concept to add to the world. It’s odd that we seem compelled to do that, but it’s even odder when you consider just how astonishing and miraculous the world is, and how it came to be – through blind luck. Evolution is a great example of this: as a demonstrable process (and before you say, “Evolution is only a theory” as I know some of you are simply dying to, you’re wrong: we can observe bacteria evolving in response to environmental pressures. We have demonstrable, falsifiable and empirical evidence for evolution.), evolution has produced an incredibly array of species, as diverse as can possibly be. There are flightless birds that live in the coldest place on earth. There are bacteria that eat plutonium deposits in decommissioned nuclear reactors. There are parasites that have evolved in step with the human race. And there is a miracle of design and engineering in your garden somewhere.
I have a soft spot for honey bees that goes back many years: I’m probably the only kid who’s never been stung by one, so I’ve never had much cause to fear them (wasps, on the other hand, are bastards) and I regard them as a really friendly and non-threatening species. Some people, I know, are afraid of them, and that’s fair enough. But you have to admire them. Here are some truly astonishing things about bees.
Bees Speak A Proper Language
It was a german psychologist called Karl von Frisch who first identified that the “waggle dance” that bees perform in the hive was a complex form of communication. Animals communicate on a number of different levels, from pheromones and scents to noises, barks and calls. This much is so obvious: animals of all kinds communicate basic information like intentions and emotions. Bees, as von Frisch discovered, do not do that. The language of honey bees is made of several components: it tells other bees within the hive where flower can be found by way of two phases: a waggle phase and a return phase. The first part contains the information: much like computer coding language, it is a set of packeted instructions that lead other bees in a direction, and the distance is indicated by the duration of the dance. The return phase is the bee equivalent of the break key on your keyboard: it causes a gap between the packets of information, showing the bees that the next information is not new information but rather a repeat. Bees, in effect, speak C++, and have done for millions of years.
What kicks ass is what von Frisch showed next: the dance a bee does correlates to real-time information, which means that bees store information organically and can then interpret that into their language and communicate it effectively to other bees. They are, in effect, aware of their surroundings, and making notes. That’s pretty cool.
A side note: since the language of bees contains very precise information packeted in strict ways, that means that bee language contains no redundancy. They never say the equivalent of “um” or “er”. Basically, if bees spoke English they’d do it better than you. But that leads into something even cooler:
Bees Speak Mathematics Better Than You
Since von Frisch showed that bees were communicating things like direction and distance, he was able to use the position of the flowers in his garden to work out what parts of the dance fit to each piece of information. What he determined was even cooler than the fact that bees speak: bees speak in numbers. The dance contains the encoded equivalent of Google Map directions (I was going to say Apple Maps but bees don’t get lost, dur hur) to sources of interest, and that information makes sense geometrically. The position of a bee in the hive (ie the angle from the centre line) shows the angle to travel from the hive in the direction of the sun to a high degree of accuracy. Distance is defined by how long the dance lasts. It’s as if your friend told you how to get to the shops by saying, “facing my house, walk at 37 degrees for one mile” and that would actually be the most accurate instruction. Not much good for us walking-types, but if you can fly it’s another matter. What’s especially cool about this is that bees base their angle on the position of the sun and given that the sun is a moving object (or not actually moving, but moving relative to the observer or, oh shut up you know what I mean) using it as a landmark requires that bees adjust their internal sextant, so to speak. And they do that by assuming the earth is round.
That’s right. It took humans thousands of years to determine what bees know instinctively.
Bees Drink Harder Than You
It’s tough being so kick-ass, and bees work hard and play hard. Fermenting honey and sap produce ethanol which has much the same effect on bees as it does on humans: it causes disorientation, loss of muscular control, aggression and poor spatial judgement. What’s weird here is that bees will voluntarily seek out alcohol and consume it, much as people must have done. A single bee can apparently consume the equivalent of ten litres of wine in one sitting, which makes them even harder drinkers than some of my relatives. Ethanol is, in fact, a natural product of bee activity: neglected cells of nectar can be seeded with yeasts needed to produce booze. One theory is that man’s first taste of alcohol was mead, a drink made from fermented honey that came from the wild bees nests of central Africa. This means that bees are basically responsible for Budweiser. Party on, bees.
Bees Have Law And Order Too
Yet bees can be dicks about it too, and for every awesome party animal bee there are a whole bunch of law-enforcing bees keeping him down. From a logical standpoint a single drunk bee could be a destructive influence on a hive: since bees love booze and he knows where the party is, and he also has the language needed to tell his friends where the party is, it’s no wonder that beehives have bouncers. One can’t help but wonder whether Colony Collapse Disorder is actually caused by lots of bees finding a source of alcohol and having a Frat Party. Oh and bees totally do drugs and get busted, just like people.
Bees Have Personalities
It seems pretty obvious that bees are just components of a larger entity. They may be able to drink and do drugs and speak geometry, but bees only have like a hundred thousand neurons apiece. That ain’t much to play around with, right?
Wrong, brother. Bees totally have individual personalities. Why? Who knows. But some bees are outgoing and some are introverts. Some like to travel and some like to stay at home. And some engage in thrill-seeking behaviour. I fucking love bees.