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2000 Years of Uncertainty

1 Oct. 1989 (Modified, May 1998) Adrian M. Wenner

Many feel that Karl von Frisch was the first to describe the “waggle dance” of honey bees and the first to propose a “language” hypothesis to explain how bees might be recruited to a productive food source. My co-workers (in particular Patrick H. Wells of Occidental College) and I found the existence of a long history of interest in honey bee recruitment. The following listing summarizes some notions:

Aristotle ~350 B.C.
“When they arrive in the hive, they shake themselves off, and three or four [other bees] follow each one closely.”

Virgil ~30 B.C.
“Some lead their youth abroad, while some condense their liquid store, and some in cells dispense…”

Butler 1609
“Their smelling is excellent, whereby, when they fly aloft in the air, they will quickly perceive anything under them that they like, as [nectar] …, though it be uncovered.”

Wildman 1768
“[Recruits follow forager out]

Spitzner 1788
“Full of joy, she waltzes around among them in circles, without doubt in order that they shall notice the smell of [nectar] which has attached itself to her; then when she goes out again, they soon follow in crowds.”

Dujardin 1852
[Some kind of language]

Burroughs 1875
“A bee will usually make three or four trips from the hunters box before it brings back a companion. I suspect the bee does not tell its fellows what it has found, but that they smell out the secret…”

Emory 1875
[Some kind of language]

Lubbock 1884
“Everyone knows that … a number of others will soon make their way to the store. This, however, does not necessarily imply any power of describing localities. A very simple sign would suffice, and very little intelligence is implied…”

Maeterlinck 1901
“… one of my beekeeper friends…wrote to me that he obtained four unquestionable [proofs of] communications …. But I am convinced that my friend was misled by his desire, a very natural one, to see the experiment succeed.”

Bonnier 1906
[Inform their companions]

Burroughs 1921
“That bees tell one another of the store of [nectar] they have found is absurd.”

von Frisch 1923
["Language," but only as stimulus-response]

Lineberg 1924
“… it appears that the discoverer of [nectar or pollen] produces a scented trail through the air, thus enabling other bees to follow it.”

Francon 1939
“The bees communicate with each other, and are even capable of transmitting instructions with a precision that is sometimes astounding.

Von Frisch 1939
“The bees communicated with fly out and look for the flowers with [the] specific scent. Flying out in all directions, they find out in the shortest time the plant which has commenced to bloom, wherever it is in the entire flying district.”

von Frisch 1947
“To-day, after two years of experimenting, I have come to realize that these wonderful beings can, in a manner hitherto undreamt of, give others exact data about the source of food.”

Wenner, Wells, and Johnson 1969
“Our results [from the strong inference experiments] support the olfaction hypothesis and contradict the dance language hypothesis.”

Gould 1976
“Von Frisch’s controls do not exclude the possibility of olfactory recruitment alone.”

Rosin 1980
“Ever since its inception, the ‘dance language’ hypothesis, although it gained general acceptance, has been constrantly struggling through numerous additional ad hoc revisions.”

Gould & Gould 1988 [p. 63]
“Recruits … fly directly to the food in the direction indicated by the dances they have attended.”

Gould & Gould 1988 [p. 74]
“… when three studies in 1970-71… did time the [search times], the results were troubling; though a bee can fly a hundred meters in about twelve seconds, successful recruits usually take ten minutes or more to find a station [located 120m from the hive].

Veldink 1989
“Evidence did not determine positions taken during the bee language controversy. At a time when there was no adequate evidence in favor of the dance language theory, scientists continued to support the theory for several years.”

Wenner & Wells 1990
“The actual behavior of searching bees, as documented by the [very] proponents of the dance language hypothesis…did not correspond with the tenets of the hypothesis. However, the resultant discrepancy ‘passed over the heads’ of the proponents of that hypothesis.”

Kak 1991
“The major conclusion for the historian of science to draw from the honey bee dance controversy is that challenge of established paradigms, even when the evidence compels [a change in interpretation], is extremely hard. Once scientists and scholars invest parts of their career in support of a paradigm, it becomes a sort of a self-betrayal to abandon it.”