Nothing seems more random than the haphazard looking zigs and zags of a bee as it buzzes along on a summer afternoon.
Yet nothing is more deliberate in all of nature. That bee has been flying a distance of up to 6 miles in a literal “beeline” from its hive to the place where it has been told there is precious food. An amazing inborn system of bee radar guides the insect closer and closer to its destination.
How is a bee told where to find food? Bees use a primitive but truly symbolic language, the only such means of communication known to exist in non-humans, to guide each other to food.
When a worker bee returns to the hive from a foray, it performs a kind of dance. From those simple steps the observing workers collect all the information they need, not only how far to fly, but in what direction. The dance is executed on the vertical face of a comb; the pull of gravity tells the bee which way is “down,” so that it can orient the dance steps in space. The direction in which each maneuver points is very important if the other workers are to find the food.
If the food source is closer than about 10 yards, the scout promenades in a circle about 1 inch in diameter. As the distance increases to 100 yards, the circle flattens to a sickle shape. Beyond 100 yards the sickle becomes a figure eight, and the pace of the dance slows. The greater the flying time, the slower this pace, presumably matching the scout’s own fatigue.
To communicate the direction of the food, the dancer uses its figure eight as a pointer. If the “waist” of the eight is vertical, the food lies directly toward the sun. If the waist tilts 20 degrees to the right of vertical, the food is 20 degrees to the right of the sun’s position and so on.
But not even clouds can deter the bees. Their eyes are sensitive to ultraviolet light, which penetrates the clouds even when “visible” sunlight is stopped; so the bees can locate the position of the sun when mere humans cannot.
In any weather, the first trip to a new and distant food source may require several minutes’ searching after the worker reaches the general area. The bee uses both vision and smell to find the right flower; it remembers the scent of the nectar that the original scout brought back to the hive. For subsequent trips the worker memorizes visual landmarks and is able to make a beeline to its target.
The configuration of the “dance” that a bee performs on returning from the field communicates to bees in the hive the location of a food source. If the source lies within 10 yards of the hive, the dance is small and circular. As the distance to the food increases, the figure flattens to an oval.
For food beyond 100 yards, the scout promenades slowly in a figure eight, whose shape indicates the location of the food in relation to the sun.