We Can Now Speak the Universal Language of Honey Bees

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A bee covered in pollen. Jon Sullivan/Wiki Commons

One of the biggest research goals of scientists studying animal communication is to one day be fully capable of communicating with other creatures, as fluently as we can communicate with other humans. Imagine being able to translate whale song, or elephant hums, or wolf howls.

While we've attempted to teach human language to other animals, like apes who have been taught sign language, it's not quite the same thing as making a decipherable translation of another animal's language.

But now, a breakthrough. A team of researchers at Virginia Tech have managed to decode the language of honey bees in such a way that will allow other scientists across the globe to interpret the insects' highly sophisticated and complex communications, reports Phys.org.

It's a veritable Rosetta Stone for honey bee linguistics, and it's a universal translator, applicable across honey bee subspecies the world over.

How they did it

To understand how researchers did it, first you must understand the medium through which honey bees communicate: the waggle dance. When bees need to convey, say, the location of a food source, they engage in a performance of sorts, a dance, whereby the precise speed and form of their waggles tells other bees where to go. This language is surprisingly complex and can impart complicated instructions.

While we've known some of the basics of how waggle dances work for decades now, our knowledge has its limitations. For instance, different bees conveying the same location can vary in their waggles, and some individual bees may alter their dances. In other words, there's a lot we don't understand about the subtleties; there's a lot of information that's lost in translation.

To fully decode honey bee language, it took full immersion. The research team did a deep dive into the waggle, carefully analyzing bee dances and precisely plotting the travel paths of bees on a map. They painstakingly calibrated dance movements with flight paths, while also considering something never considered before: noise levels. This essentially allowed them to make distinctions between bees that communicate the same information a little bit differently.

"What also makes our research different is that we trained many numbers of bees and followed them great distances," explained Roger Schürch, one of the team's lead researchers. "You can train bees to go to a feeder and move it farther and farther away."

They then compared and then collated their data with all previously published bee calibration studies. What they found was that their methodology could be applied across subspecies with remarkable accuracy. By factoring in noise, the researchers were able to weed through variations between species and essentially formulate a universal codex.

Bees around the world can understand one another

"While there were differences among populations in how they communicate, it doesn't matter from the bees' perspective," said Schürch. "We cannot tell them apart in terms of how they translate this information. There is huge overlap. In effect, a bee from England would understand a bee from Virginia and would find a food source in the same way with a similar success rate."

The usefulness of being able to communicate with bees in their own language cannot be overstated, especially because honey bees are such an important pollinator. The USDA estimates that one out of every three bites of food in the United States depends on honey bees and other pollinators.

"We think that this research can enable bees to be used as bio-indicators," said Margaret Couvillon, the team's other lead researcher. "The bees can tell us in high spatial and temporal resolution where forage is available and at what times of the year. So, if you want to build a mall for example, we would know if prime pollinator habitat would be destroyed. And, where bees forage, other species forage as well. Conservation efforts can follow."

So now, the bees can talk to us, and we can understand them with unprecedented precision. Sure, most people aren't likely to find bees to be the most engaging conversationalists in the world; bees are, quite understandably, preoccupied with talking about banal bee stuff. That's a hot topic, though, for agriculturalists, or developers or beekeepers.

The gap between our species just got a little bit smaller, and that's a comforting thought in a world where bees play such a crucial role in the human ecosystem.