Translating Honeybees

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By now, many scientists are willing to accept that intelligent animals like dolphins may have languages of their own. But what about honeybees? They couldn’t possibly have their own language, could they? After all, they’re just bugs!

Not so fast, say scientists from the University of Dundee in Scotland. They believe that honeybees may, in fact, have a language of their own, and have installed sound monitoring systems in 100 Scottish beehives to see if they can decode and translate it.

Dr. Chris Connolly, a neuroscientist at the University of Dundee and the leader of the project, explained the study in a little bit more depth to

“They make a whole range of frequencies of noise. What do these sounds mean? Do they have words or phrases to indicate they have got an infection, or they are hungry, or haven’t got a queen? The idea is to record the sounds from lots of different bees and if it transpires that all the bees are making a certain type of noise when they have, say, nosema infections, that would be very interesting. Whether this is just bee noise we don’t know. It may be that there’s a language there.”

Dr. Connolly indicated that the team has already detected some potential patterns in the noises made by the hives they are monitoring:

“It’s very early days but there is some suggestion that it might be possible to identify when a colony is hungry, or about to swarm, or hasn’t got a queen. Bear in mind that this is a social community of 50,000 to 60,000 bees.We want to see if certain noises are indicators of certain conditions.”

Of course, even if certain noises do turn out to indicate certain conditions, that doesn’t necessarily means that bees have a language as linguists understand the term. According to Wikipedia, language is different from other types of communication because “ it allows humans to produce an infinite set of utterances from a finite set of elements” and it because it consists of a system of rules that must be learned through social interaction. That’s why most research projects that have attempted to prove that animals other than humans can use language have focused so much whether or not the animals were able to understand not only individual words but on whether or not they were able to combine the words using proper syntax, which is how word order determines meaning in human languages.

Regardless of whether a hive of bees has a communication system that could be called a language, however, it’s obvious that the individual members of the hive must have some means of communicating with each other. Learning more about how they do that and what the sounds they produce mean may help scientists finally get to the bottom of the colony collapse disorder that has been wreaking havoc on bees worldwide. That’s definitely something to celebrate!