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.

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