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Navigation by hymenopteran

Jan 1, 2003

Dr. Karl Von Frisch (1886-1982) may not be a household name among ocean navigators, but his studies just might have made him a competitor with John Harrison (of first ship-board chronometer fame) for the old "Board of Longitude" prize of £20,000, had he been born just 150 years earlier.

One might think Von Frisch's 40-year study of the honey bee, hymenoptera apis, would have made him a dull conversationalist at cocktail parties (unless the subject was bees, of course), but this brilliant entomologist did reveal many startling facts about the little buzzers. He demonstrated that bees perform a kind of "dance" upon returning to the hive after finding a particularly rich source of nectar, the dance being an intricate set of navigational instructions for other bees to aid them in returning to the same geographic location. But, what is perhaps even more amazing, Frisch found that bees were excellent timekeepers, a point that should be of particular interest to the traditional celestial navigator who requires precise times for his observations.

Von Frisch and his associates discovered that, when a sugar solution was offered to bees at a fixed time, they could be trained to emerge from their hive at exactly the same time each day to be fed. Experiments conducted by Von Frisch showed that bees' remarkable sense of time did not appear to be dependent on the position of the sun or other physical cues like temperature or barometric pressure.

To prove Von Frisch's theories, his associates, Dr. Werner Loher and Dr. Max Renner, while in Paris in 1955, trained a hive of bees to feed at precisely 2015 hours, Paris time. He and his colleagues then loaded the hive aboard an airliner, transporting it intact, in the passenger cabin (much to the chagrin of the passengers and crew), to New York City, where the hive was set up in a room identical to that in Paris.

With bated breath, the German scientists, along with Dr. Theodore C. Schneirla of the American Museum of Natural History, observed the hive, while clocks set to New York and Paris time recorded hours, minutes, and seconds. When the clock indicating Paris time showed exactly 2015 hours (plus or minus 15 seconds, as it turns out), the bees dramatically swarmed out for their sugary banquet, proving beyond doubt that their sense of time was independent of location.

All of this naturally points to the possibility that the beehive might have been used as an accurate clock by those poor mariners who, for the 100 years following Harrison's perfection of the costly chronometer, could not afford the high price of those navigational marvels. It is not difficult to imagine hives of bees being trained at the Greenwich Observatory, and navigator/beekeepers comparing local ship's time with GHT (Greenwich Hive Time) to determine a ship's longitude anywhere in the world. If only they had known!


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