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More on the Honey Bee “Dance Language” Controversy

[1992 Rosin, R. More on the honey bee "dance language" controversy. Am. Bee J. 132:499-500.]

I rebutted (Rosin 1991) a negative review by Southwick (1991) of the book by Wenner & Wells (1990), staunch opponents of the honey bee “dance language” hypothesis. An earlier, utterly scathing review of that book had already been published by Seeley (1991). Not a single one of his arguments is valid. But I shall deal here with only one major argument.

According to Seeley virtually all the evidence Wenner & Wells bring up to support use of odor alone by potential-recruits, including the very poor efficiency of potential-recruits, is consistent with the expectations from the “dance language” hypothesis. Wenner & Wells presumably fail to see that because they, in a gross error, exclude a role for odors from the “dance language” hypothesis. Wenner & Wells exclude an ability to sense the odors from a source except when very close to the source, i.e. practically at the source itself; because v. Frisch’s very early error regarding the very poor sensitivity of honey bees to odors led him to conclude that odor-effects, as far as honey bees are concerned, are restricted to the immediate vicinity of the source. They also exclude the short-range odor-searching flight which, according to the “dance language” hypothesis, most potential-recruits must perform after use of “dance language” information in order to pin-point the source. They exclude this search, because all the evidence leads to the conclusion that it does not exist at all. The issue had already been briefly raised by Wenner as early as 1974 (Rosin 1990, 1991). What Wenner & Wells exclude they, thus, exclude justifiably. Moreover, what they exclude may make it difficult to explain why potential-recruits are so inefficient that they take so long to arrive during the flight which ends in success. But it makes it much easier to explain a far more serious problem, i.e. why they are so inefficient that the great majority of potential-recruits fail altogether.

Unfortunately, the honey bee “dance language” controversy has by now become so unnecessarily convoluted that it is easy for one side to overlook a problem which the other side can see immediately. The problem regarding an efficiency of presumed users of “dance language” information that is just as poor as that expected from use of odor alone is not at all how to explain such a poor efficiency; which is what Seeley believes the problem to be. Moreover, he believes that it is a non-problem created by an error Wenner & Wells made. He has, thereby, completely overlooked the real problem which is how such an inefficient “dance language” could at all evolve in the first place? Honey bees, like all insects in general, must already have the very inefficient system of finding distant attractive odor-sources by use of odor alone. They could, therefore, never evolve a “dance language” which is just as inefficient, i.e. quite useless and, hence, superfluous for them.

Whereas Seeley insists that use of “dance language” information should be expected to be very inefficient, v. Frisch himself believed otherwise. He believed that use of “dance language” information was so highly efficient that foragers foraging at a rich source “quickly recruit numerous newcomers” and “newcomers find the source through the most direct route possible” (Frisch 1967). At the same time, because of his error regarding the poor sensitivity of honey bees to odors, he expected use of odor alone to be practically hopeless, especially for distant sources (Frisch 1962). He was, thus, able to implicitly take it for granted that presumed use of “dance language” information was much more efficient than use of odor alone and, therefore, useful to honey bees. Now, however, that the sensitivity of honey bees to odors turns out to be far higher, and the efficiency of presumed use of “dance language” information turns out to be far lower than he believed, there is no evidence whatsoever that presumed use of “dance language” information is more efficient.

Gould, well known for his presumed decisive proof for use of “dance language” information under v. Frisch’s conditions, believed he had resolved the “dance language” controversy by conceding that potential-recruits use odor alone under Wenner’s conditions, but claiming that they use “dance language” information under v. Frisch’s conditions. The efficiency of his potential-recruits in terms of the number of dances performed per new-arrival, however, turns out to be even far higher in his tests under Wenner’s conditions (where, according to his own concession most, or even all new-arrivals used odor alone) than in his tests under v. Frisch’s conditions (where he claimed that most new-arrivals used “dance language” information). I had already pointed that out in a 1978 publication. All one needs to do to verify it is to divide the number of dances by the number of new-arrivals for each tallying period in his report on his direction tests (where the total number of new-arrivals during each tallying period can be determined, because he separately provides the number of new-arrivals also at the forager-station).

By insisting that the efficiency of use of “dance language” information should be expected to be as poor as the efficiency of use of odor alone Seeley has, inadvertently added another nail to the coffin of the “dance language” hypothesis, Do we need any more?

References

Frisch, K. von. 1962. Dialects in the language of the bees. Scientific American, 207(2):78-87.

Frisch, K. von. 1967. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA.

Rosin, R. 1990. Honey bee dance language challenged again. Amer. Bee J. 130(10):672.

Rosin, R. 1991. Much abuzz about nothing! (The honeybee “dance language”). Amer. Bee J. 131(8):525-526

Seeley, T. 1991. Bee warned. Nature, 349:114.

Soathwick, E. E. 1991. Bee dance language? Amer. Bee J. 130(2):226-228.

Wenner, A. M. & Wells, P. H. 1990. Anatomy of a Controversy: The Question of a “Language” Among Bees. Columbia University Press, New York.

R. Rosin*
Dept. of Zoology,
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
*Present address: 126 W. 83rd St.,
N.Y., N.Y. 10024