How could bees of little brain come up with anything as complex as a dance language? The answer could lie not in biology but in six-dimensional math and the bizarre world of quantum mechanics.
Honeybees don’t have much in the way of brains. Their inch-long bodies hold at most a few million neurons. Yet with such meager mental machinery honeybees sustain one of the most intricate and explicit languages in the animal kingdom. In the darkness of the hive, bees manage to communicate the precise direction and distance of a newfound food source, and they do it all in the choreography of a dance. Scientists have known of the bee’s dance language for more than 70 years, and they have assembled a remarkably complete dictionary of its terms, but one fundamental question has stubbornly remained unanswered: How do they do it? How do these simple animals encode so much detailed information in such a varied language? Honeybees may not have much brain, by they do have a secret.
This secret has vexed Barbara Shipman, a mathematician at the University of Rochester, ever since she was a child. “I grew up thinking about bees,” she says. “My dad worked for the Department of Agriculture as a bee researcher. My brothers and I would stop at his office, and sometimes he would how show us the bees. I remember my father telling me about the honeybee’s dance when I was about nine years old. And in high school I wrote a paper on the medicinal benefits of honey.”
Shipman’s work concerned a set of geometric problems associated with an esoteric mathematical concept known as a flag manifold………..
Mathematicians like to examine different manifolds the way antiques dealers browse through curio shops–always exploring, always looking for unusual characteristics that expand their understanding of numbers or geometry………..
One day Shipman was busy projecting the six-dimensional residents of the flag manifold onto two dimensions. The particular technique she was using involved first making a two-dimensional outline of the six dimensions of the flag manifold. This is not as strange as it may sound. When you draw a circle, you are in effect making a two-dimensional outline of a three-dimensional sphere. As it turns out, if you make a two-dimensional outline of the six-dimensional flag manifold, you wind up with a hexagon. The bee’s honeycomb, of course, is also made up of hexagons, but that is purely coincidental. However, Shipman soon discovered a more explicit connection. She found a group of objects in the flag manifold that, when projected onto a two-dimensional hexagon, formed curves that reminded her of the bee’s recruitment dance.
Delving more deeply into the flag manifold, Shipman dredged up a variable, which she called alpha, that allowed her to reproduce the entire bee dance in all its parts and variations. Alpha determines the shape of the curves in the 6-D flag manifold, which means it also controls how those curves look when they are projected onto the 2-D hexagon…………..
Shipman is not, however, content to play Kepler. “You can look at this idea and say, `That’s a nice geometric description of the dance, very pretty,’ and leave it like that,” she says. “But there is more to it. When you have a physical phenomenon like the honeybee dance, and it follows a mathematical structure, you have to ask what are the physical laws that are causing it to happen.”
At this point Shipman departs from safely grounded scholarship and enters instead the airy realm of speculation. The flag manifold, she notes, in addition to providing mathematicians with pure joy, also happens to be useful to physicists in solving some of the mathematical problems that arise in dealing with quarks, tiny particles that are the building blocks of protons and neutrons. And she does not believe the manifold’s presence both in the mathematics of quarks and in the dance of honeybees is a coincidence. Rather she suspects that the bees are somehow sensitive to what’s going on in the quantum world of quarks, that quantum mechanics is as important to their perception of the world as sight, sound, and smell.
Isn’t that awesome!!!! Bees, might be sensitive to quantum mechanics!!! I know it’s just a theory at the moment but the mathematics supports the theory so I am hopeful we would learn a lot from our little companions.
Having said that, this is not a good piece of news :
The mystery of disappearing honeybees is far from solved. The greatest suspects so far are pesticides and radiation from mobile phone base stations. However, it is likely that sub-lethal effects due to GM crops, mites infestations and other factors which alter the bees’ behaviour, affect their memory and learning process or compromise their health and immunity will all have a role to play.
Now I feel really guilty about the small budding bee hive that I have to knock down in my front porch. But I gotta do it before my 5 year old becomes interested in it and pokes her finger into the hive.