The Magazine

Honey Trap

The buzz about bees is not necessarily good

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
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That bees communicate was first established more than a century ago by the philosopher Maurice Maeterlinck, who let a foraging honeybee find a dish of sugar syrup and return to the hive, then trapped her as she left it so she couldn’t lead the way for others. Still, bees from her hive quickly appeared at the dish. Had they followed a smell? Evidently not—because they showed up even when the dish was many miles away, and downwind. 

Since then, scientists have concluded that honeybees report on food sources by dancing. A forager back at the hive will grasp another worker and vibrate, signaling that it should migrate to the site of a “figure eight waggle dance.” In the dance, a bee vibrates while running forward, indicating the distance to the food, and then turns and circles back to the starting point. Observing bees can see the direction of the food by the angle of the dance on the comb relative to the sun’s position. If the food is especially good, the bee vibrates more intensely and makes more circles. The observers sometimes squeak, apparently asking for details; the bee responds by giving the squeaker a sample of her load. 

Sometimes Winston goes too far afield—the chapters on bee-inspired art, religion, and social work projects are dull—but most of the time his lyricism inspires awe of these necessary insects, as when he describes approaching a hive: 

First you hear the sound, the low hum of tens of thousands of female workers. .  .  . Smells and textures bombard the senses next, the sweet odors of beeswax and honey, the stickiness of plant resins. .  .  . And then there are the bees themselves, walking over your hands and forearms .  .  . the subtlest of touches as their claws lightly cling and release, the gentlest of breezes as their wings buzz before taking flight.

Temma Ehrenfeld is a writer in New York.