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Bees: Waugsberg via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Thought balloon: Noto Project

Honeybees Go "Whoop!" When They Bump Into Each Other

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Bees: Waugsberg via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Thought balloon: Noto Project

British scientists say startled honeybees emit a teeny “whoop!” noise when jostled or head-butted by another bee. The team described their findings this week in the journal PLOS One.

Bee societies are astoundingly sophisticated and complex; they’re strict hierarchies in which every bee knows its job and its place. To keep this social machine humming along, bees rely on multiple forms of communication: chemical signaling, electrical impulses, gestures (like their waggle dance), and sound.

One of the most common sounds is a quick little wing-buzz used often in crowded colonies. Bees seem to make this noise when they ask another bee for food and as they interfere with another bee’s waggle dance—a move that tells the second bee to change its plans. Because the buzz seems to be used to abort the waggle dance and any foraging that might follow, scientists call the noise the “stop” signal.

To learn more about the signal, researchers at the UK’s Nottingham Trent University set up accelerometers and cameras inside honeybee hives and left them there for a year. (This particular sound is inaudible to the naked human ear and can only be picked up with monitoring devices.)

Ramsey et al. 2017. PLOS One

The resulting recordings were surprisingly packed with these little buzzes. So packed, in fact, that lead author Martin Bencsik began to suspect we’d misinterpreted its meaning. “There’s no way a bee was trying to inhibit another one that frequently,” he told New Scientist, “and there’s no way a bee would request food that frequently.”

So what is the buzz about?

Surprise, it seems. Video footage from inside the hives showed that bees mostly emitted that little sound after another bee had knocked into them, the same way you might say “whoa!” when a stranger suddenly jostles you on a crowded sidewalk. Bencsik and his colleagues propose that instead of calling the noise a “stop” signal, we should call it a little “whoop” instead.

The authors suggest that bees, like people, may complain more when times are hard—which means that we might be able to use the frequency of their little whoops to calculate their colony’s stress level.

The findings are “awe-inspiring,” entomologist and educator Gwen Pearson tells mental_floss. “Honeybees [were] domesticated centuries ago, but we are still trying to understand how they work.”

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Yani Dubin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0
Bumblebees Mark Their Trails With Tiny Scented "Footprints"
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Yani Dubin via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

Bees seem to have an endless number of tricks up their sleeve—and on their feet. Scientists have discovered that bumblebees leave itty-bitty scented “footprints” on every flower they visit, thereby informing other foragers that the bloom’s been recently tapped. The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Bees are the queens of complex communication. They exchange information with one another and their environments using a dazzling array of sensory input, including electrical impulses, sound, dance, and chemical signals.

Some of those signals flow out into the world through the bees’ delicate little feet. The bottom segment of a bee’s leg, called the tarsus, secretes a scented goo that helps the bee stick to the soft surfaces of flower petals. The chemical profile of each bee’s foot-glue is as unique as a fingerprint.

Previous studies have shown that bees glean important information from one another’s goo, skipping flowers that other bees have already visited. This raised an interesting question: If a bee can "read" another bee’s scent mark, can it also identify that bee?

To find out, researchers planted small clusters of fake flowers in the laboratory and topped some of them up them with sucrose nectar. They then gave bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) free rein to tromp around the blossoms, marking them up and taking in the marks of other bees that had come before.

The bees proved careful and canny readers. Not only did they use other bees’ scent marks to decide which flowers to probe, but they also considered the source of the scent when making that decision. An individual bee could easily differentiate between the smell of its own feet (trustworthy), those of its family members (very trustworthy), and those of strangers (not a reliable source of floral information).

Lead author Richard Pearce is a biologist at the University of Bristol. "Bumblebees are flexible learners and, as we have discovered, can detect whether or not it is they or a different bumblebee that has visited a flower recently. These impressive abilities allows them to be cleverer in their search for food, which will help them to be more successful," he said in a statement.

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Wikimedia // Public Domain
Sir Richard Francis Burton's Attempt to Learn Monkey Language
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Wikimedia // Public Domain

In the 20th century and beyond, several research programs explored the ability of apes to communicate with human sign language, including primate celebrities such as Washoe the chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, and Koko the gorilla. Charles Darwin himself wondered if human language might have evolved from the musical cries of our ape-like ancestors, asking in one of his Notebooks: "Did our language commence with singing … do monkeys howl in harmony?"

But before Washoe, Nim, and Koko—and even before Darwin—the famed British explorer, ethnographer, and writer Sir Richard Francis Burton made an eccentric attempt to bridge the communications gap by starting a residential school for monkeys and trying to learn the language of their calls and cries.

Burton owed the success of many of his explorations to an extraordinary ability to learn foreign languages. During a life of military adventure and travel in the far reaches of the British Empire, he is said to have learned to speak more than 20 languages with fluency, including Turkish, Persian, Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Pashtu. He famously staked his life on his Arabic in 1853, when he entered the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina (then forbidden to Europeans) in disguise as a pilgrim on the hajj.

In the 1840s, Burton was a junior officer in the army of the British East India Company, stationed in the province of Sindh, now in Pakistan. According to his wife, Isabel (née Arundell), who published a version of his journals after his death in 1890, Burton was drawn to the chatter of the wild monkeys in the streets of the city and decided to try and learn what they were saying.

In The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton [PDF], Isabel described how Burton moved into a house with a troop of monkeys and set about trying to learn their language. "He at one time got rather tired of the daily Mess, and living with men, and he thought he should like to learn the manners, customs, and habits of monkeys," she wrote, "so he collected forty monkeys, of all kinds of ages, races, species, and he lived with them." His goal, Isabel wrote, was "ascertaining and studying the language of monkeys, so that he used regularly to talk to them, and pronounce their sounds afterwards, till he and the monkeys at last got quite to understand each other."

Burton also issued the monkeys with honorary titles and monkey-sized costumes that he thought suited their characters: "He had his doctor, his chaplain, his secretary, his aide-de-camp, his agent, and one tiny one, a very pretty, small, silky-looking monkey, he used to call his wife, and put pearls in her ears," Isabel explained.

The dinner table provided opportunities for teaching etiquette: Burton presided over the meals, all served by Burton’s servants. "They all sat down on chairs at meals, and the servants waited on them, and each had its bowl and plate, with the food and drinks proper for them," Isabel wrote. "He sat at the head of the table, and the pretty little monkey sat by him in a high baby's chair … he had a little whip on the table, with which he used to keep them in order when they had bad manners, which did sometimes occur, as they frequently used to get jealous of the little monkey, and try to claw her."

Burton repeated the monkeys' sounds over and over until he believed he understood some of them. According to Isabel, Burton learned to identify up to 60 monkey "words," which he recorded in a "monkey vocabulary." But around 1845, he moved on from Sindh and his monkey school, on his way to what became more famous adventures: visiting the forbidden city of Harar in what is now Ethiopia; getting speared through the cheek by Somali warriors (surviving with the scars to prove it); and seeking the source of the Nile in East Africa. Although Burton had hoped to one day return to his animal language research, his journals of his time in Sindh and his monkey vocabulary were destroyed in 1861 after a fire at a London warehouse where his belongings were being stored. Sadly, many of the details of his experiments have been lost to history.

Burton's experiments seemed fairly bizarre to his contemporaries, but they might seem less so today. More than 150 years after his efforts, scientists look to our primate relatives for clues to the origin of human language. One recent study found that macaque monkeys have all the physical organs necessary to produce human-like speech; what they lack is our brainpower. "If they had the brain, they could produce intelligible speech," Princeton neuroscientist Asif A. Ghazanfar told The New York Times. No doubt Sir Richard Francis Burton would have been among the first to try and write it down.

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