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The buzz around the dance of the bee

September 14, 2019

I don't know how many dancers follow fashion, but though it starts with fashion, this is in effect a good dance story. So go ahead and read it. In 2015, there was a big change in the leading fashion house of Gucci. It got a new Creative Director, Allessandro Michel, who grew from being a victim of bullying in school to being responsible for all of Gucci's collection and global brand image, earning for him the position of one of Hypebeast's HB100, an honor bestowed to the top 100 most influential people in the fashion industry. One of the first changes he affected was the inclusion of a menagerie of animals - birds, butterflies and bees. Most prominent amongst them are the bees. You find the bees on sneakers, bags and on the red carpet as the self weave of suits that bear the brand's label. I suspect that the choice has less to do with environmental concerns, rather than quirkiness quotient of designers.

Poets too have waxed eloquent about the little bee. Here is an excerpt from Kahlil Gibran's cult book 'The Prophet.'

Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn
that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower,
But it is also the pleasure of the flower
to yield its honey to the bee.
For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,
And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,
And to both, bee and flower,
the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.

While reading these lines, we commended the simplicity of the big idea the lines contain, but have we ever considered how critical is this "needing" and "yielding" for the human race? I first got interested in bees when I happened to attend an excellently curated Bee Conference at the Park Hotel in Chennai, once well known for its large bee hives. I remember that Malavika Sarukkai danced at this conference on the theme of bees, as did Priyadarsini Govind, both putting up imaginative fare, but it was the conference, with a multi disciplinary focus, that hooked me with the range of papers presented by agriculture scholars, artistes, economists, environmentalists and scientists, including entomologists, apicologists and mellitologists.

Man and the tiny hairy creature that is often dismissed as insignificant, are actually in a dependency relationship with man dependent more on the bee than the bee on man. The most important thing that bees do is not the collection of honey, but pollination. Actually many of the foods and crops we rely on need, or at the very least benefit from bee pollination. Flowers that get visited more often by bees will produce, larger and more uniform fruit than those less visited. In the absence of the visit by a bee, pollination does not happen and the fruit does not get produced at all. This is the reason why the sliding numbers of bees in the world today, is an agrarian crisis waiting to happen.

Actually pollination appears to be a secondary result emerging from the bees' passion to make honey. In her quest for the nectar found inside each flower's base, the bee in its eagerness brushes against the stigma and stamens, thereby becoming the conduit to pass pollen from one flower to the other. Indian art and poetry has linked the bees to sweetness, to love - since they are the string of Kama's bow, they are like lovers, remarkably kissing gently the lips as they suck out the nectar and drink it.

Small they may be in size, but they are masters of an art. This is the art of communication through dance. When on sorties in its search for nectar a bee finds a concentration of floral sources of nectar that may be available for only a short period of time, it rushes back to gather more bee resources. To do this it has to pique their interest sufficiently that they will desist from what they are doing and rush off to collect the nectar. How does the bee do that? Well, to kindle interest, the scout bee often has had the good sense to carry proof of the pudding. Engorged with nectar from a newly found nectar source, the bee spends about 30-45 seconds regurgitating and distributing nectar to bees waiting in the hive, a sampler of the goodies that she can lead them to. That is how they create a buzz (I couldn't resist this).

Then, once her generosity has garnered an audience, the communication of the road map begins. This is via dancing. Scientists tell us that there are basically two types of bee dances: the round dance and the tail-wagging or waggle dance, with a transitional form known as the sickle dance.

In all cases, it is the quality and quantity of the food source that determines the liveliness of the dances. If the nectar source is of excellent quality, the first time round the scout bee will dance enthusiastically. If the source lives up to its promise, then each time that the bees return from a sortie, nearly all foragers will dance enthusiastically and at length. If the food source is of lower quality, the dance will be noticeably different. It will be a medley of shorter and less vigorous dances! You can be sure that when the denizens of the hive see this they are less attracted to go to this source.

Let us talk about the two dances now, starting with the round dance. The round dance is used for food sources that are close to the hive, a maximum of 25-100 meters away from it. After distributing some of her new-found nectar as a sampler to kindle interest in the waiting bees for her proposal, the scout will begin performing the round dance. She begins running in a small circle, almost like Kathak's pirouettes, switching direction every so often. After the dance ends, food is again distributed at this or some other place on the comb and the dance may be repeated as many as three times and only rarely more often.

The point to be noticed is that the round dance is only a marker of the fact that floral source is out there, and that it is not too far. The round dance does not give directional information. Bees elicited into foraging after a round dance fly out of the hive in all directions searching for the food source they have been informed about. Odour is a big help. Odour helps the recruited bees find the new flowers in two ways. Bees watching the dance detect fragrance of the flowers left on the dancing bee. Additionally, the scout bee leaves odour from its scent gland on the flower that also helps guide the recruits.

The bee has intuitive discretion and an innate sense of distance. Thus, in case the food source is more distant, then the bee does not perform the round dance and instead performs a different choreography known commonly and colloquially to scientists as the waggle. Sometimes the bee uses a gradual transition between the round and waggle dances, that takes place through either a figure eight or a sickle shaped pattern.

The waggle dance includes information about the direction and energy required to fly to the goal. Energy expenditure, a measure of distance is indicated by the length of time it takes to make one circuit. For example a bee may dance 8-9 circuits in 15 seconds for a food source 200 meters away, 4-5 for a food source 1000 meters away, and 3 circuits in 15 seconds for a food source 2000 meters away.

When it comes to conveying the direction of the food source the bee makes a reference to the azimuth of the sun. The azimuth is the horizontal angle or direction of a compass bearing. To indicate direction, where the dancer bee faces during the straight portion of the dance when the bee is waggling, is the indicative compass. If she waggles while facing straight upward, then the food source may be found in the direction of the sun. If she waggles at an angle 60 degrees to the left of upward, the food source may be found 60 degrees to the left of the sun, and so it goes.

The question we are compelled to ask is how do the bees see, let alone read these signals in the darkness of the hive. To counter the darkness of the hive, the bees additionally to dancing, emit sounds that assist the bees in making a mental map of where the food is.

It is precisely because the bees are so well equipped with respect to food that we get ours. Since 1962 it is believed that USA has lost 90% of its bee colonies, largely due to monoculture over vast tracts of land. While India has desisted from monoculture, here too, since the new millennium the bee numbers are falling noticeably with pesticides being cited as the reason. It is time that we dancers stood up for our dancing life saver. It is true that the dance of the bee is saving the population of the earth from food shortages. A humbling thought indeed.

The information in this article was taken from "The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees" by Karl von Frisch.

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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