by: Richard Taylor
I was recently surprised to find in the New York Times magazine a piece by someone who had, with great joy and enthusiasm, taken up beekeeping and then, when his colonies got hit with parasitic mites, abandoned it completely. He wrote wistfully of how he would miss the hum of his bees, but he saw no point in continuing in the face of this problem. We all know that feeling. I've certainly had it, more than once. But then the bees always come back to rebuke my pessimism, with enormous honey crops. I don't think this is the time to be discouraged. All the beekeepers I know are getting record honey crops, and the commercial ones are wholesaling their honey at close to a dollar a pound, in drums. Predictions about bees are always hazardous, but my feeling is that the future holds some big surprises, and that they will be pleasant ones.
What I really want to talk about this time, however, is honey bee psychology. How smart are bees? Roger Morse wrote recently that they 'can measure, interpret, learn and make decisions on a much higher level than is generally thought possible,' (Bee Cult ure, October 1996). And in support of this, he described how they learn to forage for nectar on alfalfa without getting caught. The alfalfa blossom is constructed in such a way that if a bee sips nectar from it in the normal way, then the blossom 'trips,' that is, certain of its parts snap shut on her tongue, and she has a hard time getting loose. But after awhile, the bee learns to approach the blossom from the side, sipping the nectar without tripping the blossom.
That is pretty impressive, and conclusive. But of course there are many other ways that bees clearly learn from experience. I once designed a screen for the window of my honey house which was such that the bees inside could fly out, but those outside cou ld not fly in. It was a double screen. The inside one was open at the bottom, and the outside one open at the top. Bees, when they encounter a screen, move upward on it. so the indoor bees, flying to the window, soon found their way out, by their natural upward movement, but the outdoor bees, by the same natural movement, did not get in. However, after a few days, the outside bees learned the trick. Arriving at the screen, they would hesitate, and then crawl downward, between the two screens, and into the honey house. At this point, I closed the window. The bees had caught on.
And, of course, there are lots of other examples of learning, things that a beekeeper sees all the time. The orientation flights of young bees are a perfect example. These bees are quite literally learning the location of their hive. They learn, bit by b it, what the countryside looks like for a couple of miles around and how to navigate their way home.
If you split a colony, in such a way that you get one hive on top of another, with its entrance to the rear, and then, after a couple of weeks, move the top hive to another spot, then the returning bees are confused for awhile. They arrive at where the t op hive should be, to find nothing there. But after a few days, the confusion is over, and the returning bees go straight to the bottom hive, with its entrance in the opposite direction. They have learned just what to do.
A clear and striking example of learning is provided by swarming behavior. Here you have thousands of bees, who have become perfectly oriented to their hive, bees which have for weeks flown unerringly to its entrance. And they suddenly, having found a ne w nest site ñ a hollow tree perhaps, maybe miles away ñ learn the location of this new site, and begin returning faithfully to it. It is as if they had effaced all they knew about the original nest site, replacing it with all the new knowledge they need t o find their way regularly to the new one.
Bees also learn to pick out individual things of interest to them, and to make significant discriminations. For example, you can put a dish of sugar syrup on a sheet of bright yellow paper, and the bees, once one of them discovers it, will begin a process ion, back and forth to their hive. Now move the dish with its yellow paper a few feet, and the bees quickly find it, having made the association with the yellow color. And if you now set out sheets of paper of different colors, interchanging the locations of these with the yellow, the bees go first to the yellow, even if the dish of syrup is no longer on it. Clearly, they are not just following scent clues but are acting on what they have learned.
Of course you have to be careful not to go overboard here, ascribing too much sagacity to the bees. It was once a quaint belief that if a beekeeper died, then it was someone's duty to go tell the bees. And I am still asked fairly often if my bees recogni ze their owner. One might think so, from the fact that I can move about my bee yards at certain times of the year with no veil, while if some stranger suddenly appears there, he is likely to get a sting. But no, the bees have no idea at all who I am. It i s only that I have learned how to move about in a bee yard without rousing their defenses.
Someone once thought that he could prove that a housefly is smarter than a bee by the following experiment. He put a housefly in one open bottle laid on its side and a bee in another. The fly just buzzed around in a random, aimless fashion and was soon o ut of the bottle and away. The bee, on the other hand, persisted in flying toward the source of light, which was not in the direction of the bottle neck, and thus remained trapped. But does that prove a superior sagacity of the fly? Hardly. There was no r hyme or reason to the fly's behavior. The bee, on the other hand, was using a method which its experience had taught it was reliable; namely, if you want out, fly toward the light.
The world contains many wonders. If you go through life with a preconceived notion of what you are going to find, then you will miss everything that is novel and wonderful. You will see only what you want and expect to see, and totally fail to appreciate , or even be aware of, everything that proves the narrowness of your vision. There are, for example, still people who want to insist, even in the face of totally probative evidence to the contrary, that all the extraordinary communication behavior of hone y bees, involving 'dances' on the combs and so on, are without significance, and that everything can be explained in terms of following scents! There is such a thing as scientific evidence, and sometimes such evidence is totally conclusive. If what it pro ves turns out to be remarkable, or even, sometimes, amazing, then that is no reason for closing your eyes to it and loudly proclaiming some crude and silly hypothesis that happens to be more like what you think the world should resemble.
Richard Taylor is a philosopher & lifelong beekeeper who lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York. You can reach him at Box 352, Interlaken, NY 14847.