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The Bee Language
Nature Bulletin No. 337-A   March 22, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE BEE LANGUAGE
Man has robbed and exploited the Honeybee since the earliest times of which we have any record. He may have been a bee hunter before he learned to hunt with dogs or made a fire. Eventually he discovered how to coax a swarm into an artificial hive which he could plunder at will. The honeybee, however, never has been completely domesticated. Its proper home is a hollow tree.

There were no honeybees in North America until they were brought from Europe by the colonists. "The white man' s fly", as the Indians called it, gradually spread westward, usually a hundred miles or more ahead of the frontier. Wild honey became the most important source of "sweetenin" for the early settlers -- more easily obtained than molasses or than maple sugar. Especially productive were woodlands near the Illinois Prairies with their abundance of flowers.

Two thousand years ago the Poet Virgil wrote a book about bees and the joys of bee-keeping; in classic Latin but largely childish fables. Although the insect has been studied for ages, the whole story and the true story of its wonderful ways is not yet half told. In 1901, Count Maeterlinck's famous "The Life of the Bee", proclaimed honeybees to be so human-like and intelligent that they had a language -- an idea ridiculed by John Burroughs, the naturalist, and other scientists. Experiments by a professor at the University of Munich, Karl von Frisch, have proven that the facts about bees are more amazing than any of the many romantic poems and melodramatic fables. For instance, a worker bee which has discovered a new supply of food can, after her return to the inside of the hive. in total darkness, give other workers precise information about it and its location! Only a bare outline can be given here but the many marvels of bee language are told in fascinating detail by von Frisch in a little book published by Cornell University Press.

He put a bee colony in a special hive with glass sides and a single vertical layer of honeycomb. When a scouting worker discovered and was sipping at a dish of flavored sugar water, placed at a carefully chosen location, he marked her back with a speck of paint. The color used and where it was placed on her, according to a code, enabled him to number and recognize each bee. If the food was plentiful and less than about 100 yards away, she performed a "round" dance inside the hive after she returned. On one spot, she turned completely around, once to the right and once to the left, repeating these circles again and again -- often for a half minute or more. Those bees near the dancer became greatly excited and trooped closely after her as she turned. Suddenly one, then another and another, would leave the hive and scour its vicinity for the source of food. Apparently the round dance means: "Seek in the neighborhood of the hive".

If the food is placed more than 100 yards away, a returning scout does a "wagging" dance in which she makes repeated short runs, turning completely around between each run, meanwhile wagging her abdomen rapidly from side to side. If the runs are straight up, the food is toward the sun, away from the sun if straight down; and angles to the right or left mean that a beeline to it is at those angles from the direction of the sun, The distance away, up to 3 miles or more, is indicated by the number of turns made in, say 15 seconds. The kind of food is learned from the scent on her body or from little tastes she gives them of the food she sipped.

Then they all bee-leave her.


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