June 4, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Asian Bees Speak European

Asian honeybees and European honeybees went their separate ways millions of years ago, say evolutionists.  Why, then, were Asian bees able to readily learn the European language?  An international team watched this happen.  They ran some affirmative-action integration experiments on the two species, and reported their results today in PLoS One.1
    “The honeybee waggle dance, through which foragers advertise the existence and location of a food source to their hive mates, is acknowledged as the only known form of symbolic communication in an invertebrate,” they said.  It was known that some families of European honeybees speak slightly different dialects of the dance.  The evolutionary divergence of dialects should have been extreme for honeybees halfway around the world, but learning how to do as the Romans do was no problem.  “When reared in the same colony, these two species are able to communicate with each other,” they found, and readily learned how to locate food according to the waggle-dance clues about direction, distance and quality of the food source.
    The scientists were surprised by the results.  “While the subspecies of Apis mellifera [the European bees] may have diverged around 0.67 million years ago, our study confirms that the ability to use the information encoded in an unfamiliar dance extends even across species separated by six to eight million years of evolution,” they said.  They watched with astonishment as the Asian bees quickly picked up on the language of their new European hosts.
    How does this observation fit with evolution?  “These results highlight the highly conserved [i.e., unevolved] nature of not only the dance itself, but also the mechanisms by which the dance is interpreted by follower bees.”  Those mechanisms include behaviors, learning abilities, and the production of chemical signals.  Amazed, the authors left evolutionary explanations to future researchers:

We now know that honeybees have a variety of impressive cognitive skills and an amazing learning ability.  Owing to the small brain size of the subjects, the study of honeybee learning has a good tradition of deconstructing seemingly complex phenomena, and explaining them in terms of simple processes.  This provides an ideal perspective to study the mechanisms of social learning, too.  The mixed-species colonies of Acc [Asian] and Aml [European] have paved a new way to study communication and learning between individuals of different species, which will be helpful in understanding the neural mechanisms of the striking dance language of honeybees.

Live Science reported the story, but did not attempt to explain the evolutionary conundrum that these bees were supposedly separated for 30-60 million years but could still communicate.


1.  Su, Cai, Si, Zhang, Tautz and Chen, “East Learns from West: Asiatic Honeybees Can Understand Dance Language of European Honeybees,” Public Library of Science One, 3(6): e2365. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002365.

Wouldn’t a simpler and more economical explanation be that these species were not separated by millions of years?  Why is that never considered?  Why this insistence on “conserved” traits over millions of years of a fluid process like evolution?  You’d almost think scientists are deaf sometimes.  They dance, and they waggle, they wiggle and they waffle, but they communicate little.  Their followers thus fly off in all directions except the one that can provide nourishment.

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