Like the proverbial mad dogs and Englishmen I am out in the midday sun during this heat wave looking for birds in an open field in Purbachol. The pickings are slim: the time of day is not right and neither is the season. I am about to give up when, among the small wildflowers growing in the grass, I see movement. Coming closer, I spot one honeybee, then a few more. They are buzzing frantically from flower to flower doing their job of collecting nectar. Forgetting the heat, I watch with amazement and respect. They do not take a moment's rest and continue for several minutes before moving on to another patch of wildflower.
The honeybee is perhaps one of the most important creatures in human civilization. Domesticated since ancient times for producing honey and beeswax, this insect is also responsible for pollinating most of our agricultural crops.
Although there are over 20000 species of bees in the world, only seven species from them are honeybees. These species are divided into 44 races or subspecies. The honeybees in Bangladesh include apis cerana, apis melliflera, as well as the highly productive apis dorsata (giant honeybee) in Sundarban. The Sundarban honeybees can be ferocious and their bite causes fever and diarrhoea. (In a previous Tangents column I have described my adventures hunting for honey in Sundarban.)
Honeybees are social creatures with an elaborate hierarchy. Working under the supervision of the queen bee, they collect nectar from flowers (and sometimes leaves) and bring it to their beehive. Here, the bee regurgitates the partially digested nectar, passing it on to another bee. After some more passing, the nectar is deposited inside the hive and bees vigorously fan it with their wings to evaporate water from it, thickening it into honey.
One of the most fascinating characteristics of honeybees is communication. People have known for centuries that when a lone honeybee finds a new source of food, it returns to the hive and communicates the location of this food to its fellow honeybees. But how does it do it? Does it make them follow it to the source? Does it leave a trail of honey along the way for other bees to follow?
The answer, it turned out, is much more elegant. It won a Nobel Price for Karl von Frisch, a German scientist who discovered that after discovering a food source, a honeybee performs an elaborate dance at the hive to communicate its location to fellow workers. This symbolic communication is tantamount to language. Von Frisch discovered there were two types of dance: the round dance which told the bees about a food source within a short distance, and a waggle dance which communicated both direction and distance of food that is farther away.
All this communicating by dance is easy to observe in light, but the bee performs it in the darkness inside the hive. In the darkness it uses an elaborate set of references to convey the message. For example, if the food is located in the direction of the sun, the bee runs upward along the wall of the hive. If the food is away from the sun, the bee runs downward.
So the next time you see a honeybee on a flower, you might want to remember you are looking at one of nature's miracles.