National Geographic : 1990 Jan
Article and photographs by MARK W. MOFFETT In breakthrough experiments the world's first successful robot honeybee "talks" to live bees in their own language-the dance. With this ungainly but effective mimic, scientists are unlocking secrets of animal communication. ITHOUT FUSS or fanfare his toric discover ies are being made in a shed near Wiirzburg, West Germany. There a team of scientists has tested a tiny mechanical honey bee that, communicating like a food-finding scout bee, directs followers to distant locations. Among all the means by which animals communicate from the infrasound of elephants to the visual displays of great apes-it is the dance of the "lowly" honeybee that most sci entists view as genuinely unique. Honeybees, like people, can exchange information about things remote in space and time. A bee, by dancing, informs her nestmates of the location, type, and quality of food she has found. She comes intriguingly close to using true language. This fact has been known for years. As a student I recall watching honeybees dance in an observation hive at the Milwau kee County Zoo. Armed with a book by Nobel Prize winner Karl von Frisch, who discov ered that bees use dance to communicate, I deduced that my bees were telling nestmates about a spot 300 meters to the southeast. Then I surprised myself by finding an isolated bed of flowers humming with bees at that exact location. I was thrilled by my correct reading of the dance, yet my feelings could hardly compare to those of Danish and West German scientists when, in August 1988, they first put an imitation bee on a comb in a darkened hive, directed it by computer, and realized they were "talking" to real bees. Knowing that the bees would beg for a sample of nectar, the scientists were able to deliver. They released a drop of peppermint-scented sugar water through a tube above the brass robot's head (left), simulating regurgitation by a real bee. Although the robot is anatom ically incorrect and rigged with rod, nectar tube, and an electro magnet covered with colored tape (above), bees don't see these in the dark. The robot had been smeared with wax and placed in the colony overnight to absorb local odor because resi dent bees are known to attack intruders from foreign hives.