Mark Grossman: Bees — What’s with the Buzz?

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10 April 2014

Ms. Bee, why do you buzz?

First, mechanics. When the bee flaps its small wings with amazing speed, it creates a gust of wind. Well, actually, it creates a lot of short, strong gusts of wind, so sudden and definite, that we hear it as a buzz. Flies buzz and so do other insects.

Second, some bees buzz even when they’re not flying. Bumblebees are known for their characteristically loud buzz.  However, unlike hive-dwelling honeybees, bumblebees don’t just buzz when they’re flying.  They can, and do, produce that same buzz without moving their wings.  And it is just the vibration from this flightless buzz that makes them uniquely valuable pollinators of certain crops.

After landing on a blossom, the large bumblebee grabs the blossom and holds it tightly.  While maintaining this tight grip, it strongly vibrates while remaining stationary.  Nothing less than the bumblebee’s strong vibration will assure pollination by shaking loose sufficient quantities of the thick pollen produced by certain species of plants.  No other bee could do this job as consistently or successfully.

Bumbles are specially suited to pollinate a variety of cash crops including tomatoes, cranberries, almonds, apples, zucchinis, avocados, and plums.  Their unique style of pollination accounts for about 3 billion dollars in produce each year.

Third, recent speculation suggests that bees may buzz to enhance their electronic communication. Yes, electronic communication ! Honeybees communicate with each other through a variety of dances. One of the bees’ “steps” is the waggle dance. When a single bee discovers an area rich in pollen and honey, the bee returns to the hive and does the waggle dance. The bee’s dance moves inform the other bees of the location of the blooms that will provide the most food.

We always thought it was the waggler’s dance moves that did the talking. But, now, we’re not so sure. Researchers discovered that honeybees generate and pick up an electrical charge when they fly.  The charge is so strong that the flying honeybee produces an electrical field.  And the waggle-dancing bee produces a strong electrical field – so strong that it is known to move the antennae of the bees “in the audience.”

What does all this have to do with buzzing? Well, guess what makes the dancing bee’s electrical field even stronger? Sound. The sound of buzzing. So, the buzz of the honeybee may not just be the sound of its wings, but an electronic amplifier that works like a loud speaker to broadcast its message louder and farther.

Fourth, . . .  could the bee’s buzz be a warning?  Does the buzz of a swarm of bees scare-off persons or animals that might, otherwise, interfere with the bees’ work or disturb their hive?  Frankly, when I started writing, I was planning to list only three reasons why bees buzz. But, then, I imagined the sound of a swarm of bees buzzing. The sound brought a knee-jerk reaction – alarm – and I wanted to get away fast.  My urge was more of a reflex than a thought.   And, then, I remembered a story about a movie.

It was rumored that the sound of a swarm of agitated bees was inserted into the soundtrack of the 1973 horror film, The Exorcist.  As the story goes, to keep audience tensions high during relatively quiet scenes, director William Friedkin, inserted the sound of a swarm of agitated bees into the soundtrack. No one actually heard the sounds because no one was supposed to hear them. The recording of the agitated bees was intentionally introduced at a subliminal level of volume. That is, the recording was played at a volume too low to be consciously heard. But the volume was sufficient to allow viewers (and listeners) to unconsciously “hear” the buzzing swarm and react with their own fear and agitation.

Whether true or not, the story assumes that the sound of the buzzing of a swarm of angry bees is terrifying to human beings. So, maybe the bees’ buzz has yet another purpose:  It keeps meddlers at a distance while the bees do their work.

Mark Grossman: The Ostrich – the Biggest and the Fastest

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20 March 2014

Australia has its emu, and America has its rhea. You only have to look at an emu or rhea to recognize these large birds as the cousins of the familiar ostrich.  And Africa’s ostrich is the biggest and the fastest.

[Ostrich image]

The common ostrich is the biggest bird on earth growing as tall as 9 feet and weighing up to 240 pounds.  Faster than either of its cousins, ostriches have been clocked at 43 mph.  At that speed, the ostrich isn’t just the fastest bird on earth; it’s the fastest of any land animal on the planet.  Perhaps, speed compensates for flight.  Like the other members of its intercontinental family, the ostrich is a flightless bird.

[Ostrich video]

The ostrich has flashier feathers than either of its cousins.  Adult male ostriches are black with a white wing tips and white tail feathers.  Females and young males have grayish-brown feathers – similar to those of their American cousin, the rhea.  The head and neck of the ostrich . . . well, . . . it looks like the bird is going bald – with only a sparse cover of “down.”   But, instead of a comb-over, the ostrich’s thin hair stands straight up.  It looks like it had a crew cut and, then, let it grow out.

Nature has given the ostrich all it needs to keep an eye on things.   The bird’s head rises 9-feet into the air.  Its eyes are 2 inches wide — the largest eyes of any land vertebrate (land animal with a back-bone).

Ostriches spend most of their time roaming in pairs.   Sometimes, during dry spells, these large birds form flocks.  Ostriches eat plants, but will also chow-down on some insects.  You’d expect the ostrich to be a daytime-animal like most birds.   But, if you’re wandering around in the wilds of Africa, on a moonlit night, you might meet an ostrich.  The moon gives enough light to make the ostrich comfortable enough for a nocturnal prowl.

When threatened, the ostrich will lie flat on the ground to fool passers-by into thinking it is nothing more than a bump on the ground.  But there’s one old story about the ostrich that isn’t true: this bird neverhides its head in the sand.  When threatened, ostriches seem to prefer to just hide – as a first line of defense.  But, when push comes to shove, these birds are more than able to defend themselves.  Ostriches use their powerful legs to kick.  And they have quite a kick.  It can be fatal.

Speaking of legs, no discussion of the ostrich would be complete without a discussion of this bird’s toes.  Yes, toes.  The ostrich’s relatives, the emu and the rhea, are both unusual birds because they have only three toes.  Most birds have four toes – three forward and one “opposing” toe.  The opposing toe is used to help the bird hang on to branches and other perches in the wild.    Of course, if you’re a bird, and you don’t fly, you don’t perch.  Flightless birds like the emu and rhea use their feet to walk and run.  To a running bird, a fourth toe would be nothing but an irritation.

It seems only logical that the ostrich should also have three toes, but it’s hard to count the number of ways in which this particular family of birds is unusual.  And, if you count the toes, you’ll find that the ostrich has only two.  Also, you’d think if you had toes, they’d be a bit alike.   Again, this family is unusual.  One toe has an enormous nail that resembles a hoof.   The other toe has no nail at all.  The best guess is that this “reduced number of toes” helps the ostrich run even faster.

[Ostrich feet]

But before we leave the subject of the ostrich’s legs, we need to say a few words about predators.  Africa is no place for any animal that can’t defend itself.  Aside from the famous “king of the jungle,” the lion, the rest of the list includes cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas as just a few of the most ferocious predators from which the ostrich has to defend itself.  Surprisingly, this bird does an amazingly good job of defending itself and can more than hold its own in the jungle.  How, does it manage?  With its legs.  The ostrich uses its legs to defend itself in two very different ways.

First, “he who fights and runs away will live to fight another day.”  The ostrich often runs away from predators.  As the fastest land animal on earth, it’s got a built-in advantage in this department.   Unfortunately, young ostriches, which haven’t grown up to their full speed, are particularly vulnerable to predators that the adult birds can easily outrun.  Sometimes, predators succeed by ambushing the ostrich – hiding and pouncing on an unsuspecting bird.  The cheetah is not as fast as an ostrich but, sometimes, is fast enough to catch an ostrich before the bird can build-up to full speed.

Second, the ostrich can use its legs to fight.  When an ostrich can’t retreat, especially when defending its nest, it will use its legs against an attacker.  With all of its running, you might get the impression that the ostrich isn’t an effective fighter.  It almost seems inaccurate to say the ostrich uses its legs to defend itself, because its legs are so often fatal to its adversary.  Maybe it’s enough to say that ostriches can, and do, kill lions with their legs.

In the wild, ostriches avoid humans as potential predators.  Maybe it’s a good thing for humans that the ostrich prefers to run away.  Ostriches in the wild, and sometime in captivity, can attack humans if these birds feel threatened.  Human deaths occur each year from massive injuries from a single kick of a leg and a single swipe of a claw.  These birds are big and tough.

Of the members of this family, the ostrich, emu, and rhea, the mating behavior of the ostrich is “about in the middle” in terms of strangeness.  Like the rhea, during mating season, a single ostrich male will mate with as few as 2 or as many as 7 females.  Although the male mates with several females, it will form a couple – a bond – with only one of the females in the group.

The strangeness of ostrich mating involves its rituals.  The male will repeat a loud, booming call while doing a kind of dance in which it flaps one wing a few times and, then, the other a few times.  The female will run in a circle around the male, while the male winds his head in a spiral motion. Disturbingly, ostriches raised entirely by humans will direct these same rituals toward their human keepers.

Females lay their eggs in a shared nest.  Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any bird at about 6 inches in length and 3 pounds in weight.  The males sit on the eggs at night and, then, the females sit on the eggs during the day.   The eggs hatch in about 40 days.  The male principally defends the hatchlings and teaches them to feed, but both the male and female raise their young together.

[Ostrich family on a walk]

The young ostriches will not reach full maturity in less than 2 years and, if they survive predators until they reach adulthood, a large number can expect to live for many more years.  Ostriches have been known to live past 60 years of age.

Ostriches have always been a focus of human fascination.  Use of their feathers for ornamentation extends back almost to the beginning of recorded history.  However, only in the 19th century did commercial ostrich farming for feathers develop.   These giant birds where tamed by capturing baby ostriches and raising them in captivity.  Ostriches, by the way, aren’t plucked, but sort of sheared.  A new crop of feathers re-grows about every 8 months.  The ostrich industry was only about feathers until the 1970’s when ostrich skin/leather and ostrich meat became profitable products.

Also, ostrich racing is catching on.  In Africa, people race ostriches while riding on the birds’ backs.  The “riding-birds” are specially fitted with saddles, reins, and bits for the purpose.  In the United States, ostrich racing began in Jacksonville, Florida, with the ostriches pulling draw-carts with human occupants.  Now, races are not only held in Florida, but also in Arizona, Nevada, and Minnesota.

[Ostrich racing]

Mark Grossman: Toy Robot Spiders — As If the Real Things Weren’t Enough

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6 March 2014

“The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”

Oscar Wilde

Before we go, we have to get some definitions out of the way.

A robotic purist will explain that there’s no such thing as a toy robot.  The words “toy” and “robot,” used together, form an oxymoron.  In other words, by definition, a toy isn’t a robot, and a robot isn’t a toy. A robot is a machine that “does work.”  A toy is a machine, but not a machine that does work.

An animatronic device is a machine that moves like a living creature.  Animatronic devices are used for entertainment.

But these aren’t robots. Right?

Is entertainment work?

Well, uh . . . .   Let’s get back to robots.

No one can play with a robot. Right?

Well, I have to admit that children can play with anything including (and especially) the cardboard box their “toy” came in.

So, if a child plays with a robot, does it become a toy? Well, if a tree falls in the forest . . .

Let’s forget the purist definitions.

There are toy robot spiders. They are really cool.

Inside Adam Savage’s Cave: Awesome Robot Spider!

Robugtix

In addition to the animatronic spider, the Robugtix line includes a hexapod (6-legged) robot for those who are not “spider purists” demanding the full 8-legs of the “octopodal” arachnid.

[video] iitsii the Hexapod Robot

These animatronic devices are produced by Amoeba Robotics Ltd., a research, engineering, and design company.  Founded in 2010, this Hong Kong based concern focuses on “providing innovative robotics systems for professional and educational use.”  I can’t resist including another video of the “T8.” [video]

Watching these animatronic devices, you might pause to wonder what their working counterparts, the “robots,” must look like.  And there you might get a surprise.  Working robots, like their animatronic/entertainment counterparts, are being designed to resemble animals and even people.

Why?

As soon as engineers began developing sophisticated robotics, they ran into some problems.  You may have seen those sleek glass and metal robots from those 1950’s sci-fi movies.  In those days, there was an idea that robots would have to be, somehow, completely different from organic life forms.  And this idea carried over into early, “real-world” technology.  But there were problems.  These “unlife-like” robots didn’t work so well.

The reason was obvious.  Most often, we don’t need robots to do weird, strange, or superhuman tasks.  We really need robots that do exactly what human beings (and a variety of common animals and even insects) do. What’s more, the tasks we want robots to do aren’t necessarily complicated. Often we need robots that do common, everyday tasks. Tasks that are simple, but time consuming and repetitive,

So, for about the past decade, most robots have been developed to imitate animals and human beings.  And, not surprisingly, these robots are becoming more animatronic – life-like — in their movements and, even, appearance.

Sometimes, this is intended as in the Army Research Laboratory’s Robo-Raven. This aerial drone is designed to fly and maneuver with movements so much like a bird that it actually fools real birds. [image] [video]

The “animatronic” appearance and movement aren’t the result of idle tinkering.   Instead, it’s part of this aerial drone’s camouflage.  This particular “application” of camouflage is called mimesis or “masquerade.”  The goal is to create an aerial drone that the observer mistakes for — just a bird flying by.  But the bird is a flying drone relaying sound and video back to another, concealed observer. [video]. So, the “bird-watcher” is the one being watched.

Grossmann: Bees Seek New Careers – Tired of Sweat-Shop Apiaries and CCD?

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13 February 2014

The fate of bees, generally, is a matter of great concern these days.  Bee populations throughout the world, and particularly in the United States and Europe, are dropping rapidly and mysteriously.  Without the bees’ unique service as pollinators, the value of yearly agriculture output would drop by billions of dollars.  Without bees, our food supply would plummet and a good portion of the people on earth would begin to starve – quickly.

The problem has a name CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder, but no one is sure what it is.  The best guess is that bees are weakened by a variety of factors until their immune systems collapse.  Then, they contract, and are killed, by an unrelated disease, leaving researchers to trace back through the maze to the root cause or causes.

But let’s look at the world from the bee’s perspective.  What is it like to live a bee’s life?  Right now, a terrible plague, CCD, is hanging over bee populations all over the world.  And what would the surviving bees say, if asked about their daily life?

Well, I think it would go something like this.

Interviewer: What is it like to work as a pollinator, Ms. Bee?

Bee: Work!  We aren’t worker-bees anymore!  We’re slaves being worked to death.

Interviewer: I don’t understand.  Don’t you live out in nature.  Living and working as you have for thousands of years?

Bee: Natural bee’s life!  Not even close! First, we’re fed chemicals to make us more active during pollination season.  It’s like the stuff they give to athletes before competition.  We don’t recover until about 3 months after the pollination season is over.

And, during pollination season, we’re trucked hundreds of miles on bumpy roads 24-hours a day so we can’t sleep.  And we don’t get any food.  They’re afraid we won’t be aggressive enough pollinators unless were starving.

Interviewer: Yes, but when you get to the fields, you get to chow down . . . ?

Bee: What?!  They release twice as many bees into those fields as are needed to pollinate the available blossoms.  That’s so they can make sure every blossom gets pollinated.  So, most of us get hardly anything to eat.  And, we were starving already.

Interviewer: But, then, they feed you.

Bee: No.  Then, they starve us for another day — so we’ll be “aggressive” about gathering honey.  Remember?    No wonder we’re dropping like flies.  Like I said, it takes months for us to recover after the big pollination season.  The only time we get to eat is when we’re resting off-season.  After a few years of this . . .  Let’s just say I wouldn’t cry if I never saw a blossom again.

[Nervously, the interviewer pauses – afraid to bring up the next subject.]

Interviewer: [cautiously] I want to ask you about . . . pesticides.

Bee: Pesticides! Don’t even get me started about pesticides!

A bee’s life?  If I had these working conditions, I’d look for a new career.  I’m sure many honeybees fall victim to CCD yearly.  But the more I hear about the honeybees’ life in the hive, the more I wonder if some are sneaking away to alternative careers to escape the sweatshop conditions of employment as a “pollinator.”  Honeybee’s have something going for them.  After thousands of years of smelling flowers, they’ve got good noses . . . .

TRAIN FAST FOR A NEW CAREER IN HEALTHCARE: DIAGONOTICS.

[image]

I can imagine honeybees buzzing around windows and ducking into homes and libraries to catch a look at the internet hoping to see one of those ads, “A Career in Health Care – Train in less than . . . 10 minutes?!”  Yes, learn advanced medical diagnostics, for bees, in less than 10 minutes. What can you expect to learn to diagnose?

Tuberculosis, lung, skin and pancreatic cancer.

However, there is one catch.  You must be a honeybee, Apis mellifera! Other species need not apply.  What’s so special about these bees?  They have an unbelievably acute sense of smell.  They can detect airborne molecules in the parts-per-trillion range.  What does that mean?  Well, let’s just say this puts “sniffer dogs” to shame.

But what does smell have to do with diagnosing diseases?  Do people with certain diseases smell?  No!  But their breath carries an odor that indicates the presence of certain diseases.  Technically called “biomarkers” these chemical odors are associated with specific diseases.  Odors that honeybees can detect.

A bee might ask, “What sort of working conditions?”

The bees work in a glass structure designed by Susana Soares of Portugal.  When the patient exhales into that same glass structure, the bees must fly into a smaller chamber (within the larger glass chamber) if they smell disease. [image]

The next question the bee might ask, “What about the training?”

The training takes about 10 minutes.  The bees are exposed to a biomarker odor associated with a particular disease.  With each exposure they are fed a solution of water and sugar until they associate the odor with the reward.

“Reward, huh?” muses the honeybee applicant.  “What sort of benefits can I expect?”  “Are these job secure?”

The answer.  The 10 minute training will last for life.  Of course, your employer has to keep your skills sharp by rewarding you with water and sugar repeatedly.

“So,” the bee muses, “I only have to train once, and I’ll get rewarded almost constantly with water and sugar?”  “Sweet!”

And everyone’s wondering why bees leave their hives and don’t come back.

[video]

Honey bees can be trained to detect cancer “in ten minutes”

TRAIN FOR A CAREER IN LAW ENFORCEMENT: THE WAR ON DRUGS

The DEA may be planning to use bees for security-related activities. “Security-related activities?”  Yes, bees may be rapidly replacing those clumsy flea-bitten beasts on four legs — drug-sniffing dogs.  Remember a bee’s nose put’s the canine sniffer to shame. A small hive of honeybees is easier to carry and care for than those hounds with their endless vaccinations, flea powder, and licensing requirements.

What working conditions can the bees expect? The same cushy conditions as those in medical diagnostics: Job security with constant rewards in the form of food – water and sugar.  But, instead of a glass jar, these bees work in a box. What do they do in the box. The same thing they did in the jar. It’s all about the bee’s amazing sense of smell.

Again, remember those noses. The bees don’t even have to leave home, but live in a mobile home or, rather, a box.  When air is blown through their “buzz box,” their responsive behavior alerts officers to the presence of drugs.

The box works on the same principle as the glass jar in medical diagnostics. The bees are trained to recognize the smell of a particular drug through rewards. When the air blows through the box, if the smell of contraband is detected, the bees react. But the buzz box is an especially easy gig – the bees don’t even have to fly. All they have to do is stick their tongues out. The users will recognize this, not as a sign of disrespect, but as preparation for meal as the bees associate the smell of drugs with a reward.

As far back as 2006, researchers at the Rothamsted Research Centre in Hertfordshire, UK were testing the first prototype of the buzz box.  It is being manufactured and marketed by Inscentinel a related company. Inscentinel’s General Manager, Rachael Carson, says that this technology could be used to detect more than drugs and might even be used to monitor food quality.

Rothamsted Research Centre

Inscentinel

But with research also emphasizing security-related applications, such as the detection of TNT, Semtex, gunpowder and other explosives, another related career will soon be open to our job-seeking honeybees.

SNIFFER BEES NEW FLYING SQUAD IN WAR AGAINST TERROR

TRAIN FOR A CAREER IN COUNTER TERRORISM

Remember the sign that used to say, “We’re looking for a few good dogs.” Well, the word “dogs” has been crossed out and “bees” written-in above it.

The same buzz box in which bees detect the scent of drugs, works just as well with the scent of explosives. This opens a wide range of civilian and military careers to our career-switching bees. The “B Teams” (bee teams) in the buzz boxes are building an impressive test record detecting explosives hidden in shipments passing through busy cargo airports.

The big losers here are the “former drug-sniffing” dogs. There may be a canine unemployment issue as man’s best friend starts pounding the pavement looking for work after losing out to the new, cheaper, and less care-intensive honeybee.

A FEW GOOD BEES NEEDED FOR HUMANITARIAN DEMINING.

American researchers have, and are, experimented with mine-searching bees as part of combat landmine clearance. However, landmines can remain hidden in the ground long after hostilities have ended. During the peace, after war, the job of finding and removing “abandoned” landmines is called “humanitarian demining.”

HUMANITARIAN DEMINING [image]

Croatian researchers heard about the honeybee’s amazing nose and are, now, training bees to find unexploded landmines. About 750 square kilometers (466 square miles) of Croatia and the Balkans may still be filled with mines from the Balkan wars in the 1990’s.

Nikola Kezic, a professor at Zagreb University and an expert on the behavior of honeybees, has proposed an experiment: Bees have an almost perfect sense of smell – one that can quickly detect the scent of explosives. Can the insect be trained through food rewards to detect the smell of TNT?  TNT is the most frequent explosive used in the landmines.

The problem is that the smell of TNT evaporates very quickly. Too quickly for dogs or rats to detect. (Yes, rats have been used in landmine detection.) However, neither of these animals have a nose anywhere near as sensitive as that of the honeybee.

For these experiments, the bees will be trained by mixing a small quantity of TNT in with food — water and sugar. After the bees learn to associate the smell of TNT with food, they will be released into a field in which small quantities of TNT have been placed in various locations. If they can locate the TNT in the field, the bees should be able to smell the traces of TNT from a buried land mine. The Croatian researchers are optimistic about the early test results.

And speaking of “humanitarian” applications, let’s not forget the welfare or our dogs (and, apparently, even our rats). This is one career that the dogs and rats will be happy to leave behind. Although dogs can, sometimes, sniff out land mines they are rather heavy animals. Weight on the surface of the ground — above a landmine — doesn’t promise anything good for the locating canine. If a particular dog is successful in locating landmines, it tends to enjoy a very short career.

In contrast the bees remain airborne, and can not only detect TNT, but live to sniff another day.

HONEYBEES TRAINED IN CROATIA TO FIND LAND MINES

At least one bee researcher expressed dismay with all of these new careers for the honeybee. The fear is that putting honeybees in these unfamiliar boxes and jars could cause stress that would affect the insect’s performance.  However, when you review the “unnatural” life of the modern “pollinating” honeybee, nothing about any of these new careers could be remotely stressful. So far, the bees seem to thoroughly enjoy the light work schedule and frequent rewards.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, someday soon, the almond orchards of California will have a serious honeybee shortage. CCD? Sure. Bees are dying in record numbers. But, just maybe, more than a few are escaping to alternative careers with comfortable working conditions, generous benefits, and long term security. Maybe even bees know a “better deal” when they find it . . . or smell it.

Grossmann: Dance Talkin’ – How the Bees Say It

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13 February 2014

Bees?  Are they dancing or are they talking?  Are they talking or are they dancing?  But wait!  They’re doing both! . . . at the same time!  It’s called the waggle dance.  It’s, at least, one of the ways bees talk to each other.  What is the dance like?  Well, it involves waggling.  And, before the dance was understood to be a kind of language, at least one person who saw it, Nicholas Unhoch, thought the bees’ danced just for a good time —  enjoying “jollity.”  Then, Karl von Frisch got the idea that the bees were talking with the waggle dance.  He was a patient man.  He spent years observing and cataloging the “language” of the dance.

The dance is called a “recruitment” dance because the dancing bee is trying to get other bees in the hive to travel to a particular location at which, the waggle-dancer promises, the bees will be rewarded with loads of honey.

The dance language goes like this.  Imagine one of those old dance-step charts, showing footprints, which would be put on the floor to train would-be dancers.  The bee-version would be tacked up on the wall of the hive — actually, attached to the front of the honeycomb.  With bees, dancing is more of an “up and down” affair – unlike the human “back and forth” dance movement.

On the chart, you’ll see one straight line up the center; then, two lines curve out to the right and left at the top and, then, bending down and back inward to reconnect to the bottom of the straight center line. The bee dancer may follow this circuit more than 100 times.

The dancing bee follows that straight center line upward from the bottom to the top waggling all the way. This is called the waggle phase.  Then, when the waggle-dancer reaches the top of the straight center line, it stops waggling and goes to the right and back down to the bottom of the center line.  Then, it waggles its way back up to the top and, turning left this time, stops waggling as it goes back down to the bottom and repeats its climb to the top waggling all the way.

The Waggle Dance

But what does the dance say?  Well, first, it’s about direction.  If the bee waggle-dances absolutely straight up from bottom to top, before turning left or right, it means that, when the recruited bees leave the hive, they will find the honey by going in the exact direction of the sun in the sky.  If the “waggler” dances upward at even the slightest angle to the right side or the left, that is the exact angle to the right or left of the sun in the sky that the other bees must fly to find the honey.

Not only are waggle-dancing bees really good with angles, but these bees know how the sun moves.  Even if the bees linger in the hive for a long time after seeing the dance, it won’t throw the waggle dance directions off a bit.  The bees will compensate for the sun’s change of position by making the precise corrective adjustment necessary to locate and, then, follow the correct direction.

But knowing the direction of the honey is only half of what the recruited bees need to know.  To find the honey, they also need to know how far they’ll have to travel in that direction..  The distance is just as precisely communicated by the waggle-dancer but, now, with the timing of the waggling performance.  The longer the waggle-dancer takes to dance up the straight path from bottom to top, the farther away the honey will be found.

There are many small variations in the waggle dancer’s moves and each one means something.  But the dancer isn’t a commander, but a recruiter.  So, the message in the waggle dance isn’t a command.  The waggler is just “selling” it’s find of honey to the other bees in the hive.  But if this is salesmanship, do the bees in the hive ever “pass” on whatever the waggle- dancer is “pitching?”

Yes, just because a bee waggles doesn’t mean that the other bees must follow.  The first and greatest challenge is competition.  When I first heard this description of what happens in the hive, it reminded me of a row of pitchmen at a circus or fair.  There may be several, or something like a row of, bees each doing its own waggle dance, at the same time.  Each hoping to recruit it’s fellows to the hoard of honey that particular dancer has discovered.

As long as were discussing sales, you might wonder if there’s an art to sales even among bees.  Do some pitches work better than others?  Do some wagglers not just offer the steak, but “sell the sizzle?  (Better: Do some bees not just offer the honey, but sell the sweetness?)  But, even with bees, enthusiasm sells.

The more excited the bee is about the honey source, the more rapidly it will waggle, communicating its excitement about its find to the recruit-able bees in the audience.

Somehow, I can’t help imagining that I’ve seen this excited waggle in other . . . creatures.  When my dog hears the jangle of its leash, he runs back and forth between where I’m standing and the door, excited to be going outside.  I think I’ve seen him definitely waggling.

But back to bees.

There are “Do Bees” and “Don’t Bees.”  Bad behavior isn’t restricted to humans.  Overly enthusiastic waggling bees occasionally get out hand when it comes to sales.  When competing with their fellow wagglers, the dancers will, sometimes, disrupt their competitor’s dance.  Their competitor, in turn, will fight off the disruptor.  I can imagine the whole hive dissolving into the bee version of a barroom brawl.

But what about the potential recruits?  Do they watch dutifully to determine the best source and carefully note the direction and distance to the honey.   Surprising, like children in school, a few do, but most don’t.  Whether day-dreaming or quietly buzzing with their friends about hive gossip, many miss the waggle message completely.

Then, what happens when these inattentive bees are jostled from their distraction by the need to search for honey?  Well, they may lag, just a little, until the swarm forms.  When it takes off to find the next meal, these less informed bees will just follow along behind the swarm to find the honey.

What happens if a bee lags even longer and misses the direction of the departing swarm?  Not to worry.  Some bees just fly out of the hive and look around on their own hoping to catch a lucky break and find some honey by chance.

In spite of the “Don’t Bee” slackers, the waggle dance is important to the survival of hives when honey is hard to find.  When supplies are short, the scouts who come back to the hive to waggle-dance are the chief sources of information about honey location and, often, the only available sources of honey for the hive.  Only in good times can some bees slack off and others go their own way when gathering honey.

After the swarm follows the waggler and gathers a lot of honey, the bees will return to the hive loaded down.  Then, the returning bees pass their honey to receiver bees.  The receivers, in turn, seal the honey in the comb for storage.

But what happens if a swarm comes back loaded with honey to find all the rest of the bees are leaving to gather yet more honey, themselves?  Well, the load-carrying bees have to stop the departing bees from leaving because they are needed as “receivers.”  How do the loaded bees get the message across?  Another dance.  The “tremble dance” is used to recruit receiver bees for unloading and storing the honey brought back to the hive by bees carrying a full load.

And there are more dances.  If a bee gets infested with mites, or just covered with dust, it can do the “grooming dance.”  That dance recruits other bees to help the mite-infested or dusty bee get rid of its mites or clean itself up.

Grossmann: Zombie Bees Again?! — Spreading to Vermont

Standard
13 February 2014

The New York Times broke the story in late 2012.  There are zombie bees.  Discovered in California in 2008 by John Hafernik, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, zombie bees keep spreading.

Of course, if zombie bees were going to “appear” somewhere, I wasn’t surprised that it turned out to be California.  Then, they were reported in Washington state.  Why not Oregon?  Actually, they had spread stealthily into Oregon with reports only surfacing well after the “zom-bees” (I couldn’t resist) were an established fact to the north, in Washington state.

But the next appearance puzzled me.  North Dakota seemed like the last place I’d expect to meet a zombie, but that was the next state in which the “zom-bees” appeared. The zombie horror genre had conditioned me to imagine brain-eating zombies in California.  And the “real” zombie lore might suggest Louisiana.  But North Dakota just doesn’t have the “feel” of a hotspot for zombie anything.  But the “zom-bees” can fly where they will.  If, as “zom-bees,” they still have a “will.”

And their latest flight has taken them from South Dakota to Burlington, Vermont.  There, amateur beekeeper Anthony Cantrell began finding dead bees near his home.  One can only imagine his “horror” when he discovered a close match between the behavior of his dying bees and a description on ZomBeeWatch.org, the website belonging Hafernik and his colleagues.  Dr. Van Helsing, er, ah, I mean, Professor Hafernik soon arrived to investigate and confirm that, indeed, Cantrell’s bees had been zombified!

The bee version of a zombie needs its own description.  They aren’t really much like the brain-eating zombies created by Hollywood.  And, then, there are the “real” zombies.  At least, the real belief in zombies that goes with a belief in Voodoo. But neither the “zombies” of Hollywood or Voodoo exactly match our zombie bees.  Still, when you hear how zombie bees behave, you’ll understand why “zombie” was picked as the best way to describe the fate of these poor insects.

The zombie bee falls victim to a parasitic fly, apocephalus borealis. The fly lays its eggs physically inside the bee’s body.  Then, the eggs actually affect the bee’s behavior.  However, the eggs and larvae of the apocephalus borealis fly control the bee’s “mind,” only briefly, before causing its death.

Under the influence of the developing fly larvae, the honeybee abandons its exclusively daytime routine and does something a bee doesn’t do  — flies at night.  Just before, and during, this “last flight” into the night, (what Hafernik calls “”the flight of the living dead,’”) the bee begins to move erratically.  It ends its last flight in death.  Only then, do the fly larvae eat their way out of the dead bee to continue their growth to maturity.

Cantrell reported that, at a recent meeting of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, Steve Parise, an agriculture production specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, discussed the threat posed by zombie bees.  Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture is considering trapping bees to investigate the zombie bee threat.

The culprit fly was originally discovered in the 1920s, in Maine. Since that time, it has spread across the United States.  It was a known parasite of bumblebees and yellow jacket hornets — but it left honeybees alone.  At least, it did until 2008, when the fly changed.  Now, it’s a honeybee parasite.  Not only do the fly’s eggs and larvae feed off the honeybee, they turn the victim into a zombie.

The End?