Friday, May 3, 2013

Bee Waggle Dancing

Two Sunday nights ago, I got a panicked text from my godaughter Ashley who lives nearby.  "Ant Kathy, help!" ("Ant" is how I'm referenced by relatives/godchildren of the next generation; it's a slang Southern corruption of "Aunt" for an aunt who happens to be an entomologist and beekeeper, thus "Ant").

Anyway,  Ashley proclaimed in texted abbreviated language that she had to do a freshman highschool science project that involved serious research.  Help! What to do?!  Could I assist?  (She stressed that I was not to do the project, but to provide ideas for her to do it.)  This is a trial project, although graded, for next year's real science fair project for the county.  It was to introduce her and her classmates to the steps involved in scientific research; such as the creation of a hypothesis, design methods for testing such, the testing and observation process and materials involved to collect the data points, and the summarizing and synthesizing of the collected data to draw general conclusions from the experimental study to then accept or throw out the hypothesis. 

"When is this project due, Ashley?" I return texted.  "Next Monday," came the answer.  "Oh," I texted back; (fortunately emotion is not obvious in texts)! "How long have you known about this?" my reply. "All semester," she typed.  "Oh," I offered. "Science projects generally cannot be done in one day or even one week.  They typically require replicated testings over a period of time. But, tell me about what you want to test."  (I tried to avoid any judgement from my post-Ph.D. frame of mind, and recall that I, too, would have (and in fact did wait) until the last minute in highschool.  It is such a busy time in one's life.  Hard not to!  And, in fact, this is part of the learning process.  Besides, this does not need to be publishable, it's a high school project for goodness sake, take a deep breath and relax, Doctor Kathy!

"I want to measure something with pollination and flowers and your bees." "Ok.  So, can you come to my house after work a couple of times this week to watch the bees and their behavior around the flowers?"  "Well, no, I have tennis practice every evening."  "Oh. OK. Can you come Saturday to sit by the hives most of the day?"  "Yes, if I can get a ride, but mom is working and my grandparents are going to a wedding."  "OK.  Well, why don't I pick you up Friday night and you spend the night with me and then we will start early Saturday morning with collecting data."  "AWESOME!!!!" came the texted reply.  (Who talks on phones anymore, anyway?! So, yesterday's news!)  "Oh, and I need a total of ten references, five of them by Wednesday."  "Ok." I gave her three and had her use those to research the others on her own. 

I started looking through my own resources, and pulled out my BeeCulture magazines from the last year.  The most recent one had a nice pictogram of the bee's waggle dance; the last century animal behavior Austrian scientist Karl von Frisch discovered this phenomenon.  It's quite amazing really.

A scout bee returning from a flower will communicate to her sisters where the flowers are located based upon the angle of the sun and it's relationship to the hive.  (In other words, the bees, with only a small neuroganglion for a brain, are doing sophisticated trigonometry to locate food resources and to recruit fellow foragers to go there and then return to the hive.)  The returning worker scout will waggle her abdomen on the frame in the hive; the angular degree to which she waggles from the center line of her body is the same angle as what the sun to the hive is in relation to the flowers at that moment.  Go figure! Literally!  "Ashley has to use this pictogram in her study!," I thought.

So over the next few days we texted and emailed and discussed possible questions she could ask.  We landed on counting resource (nectar/pollen) foraging flights to and from the hive as temperature changed or sun rose (ie. time of day).

Her research question (or null Hypothesis) became: Does temperature affect the number of foraging flights made by honeybee workers from a hive?

She came out Friday night and we got up early Saturday morning.  She sat by the hive from 7 am until 2pm.  I brought her water and food.

Over the course of the day, Ashley saw that temperature does indeed affect the number of foraging flights made by honeybee workers from a hive. At 7am and a temperature of 42F,  no one was flying. The first flight occurred at 8:47 am when the sun was higher and the temperature was 52F.   After the temperature reached this level and continued to climb (as did the sun), the number of foraging flights were seen the entire research period and correlated directly with the rise in temperature. In addition, more bees were seen returning to the hive with the rise in temperature. She observed them bringing in pollen of different colors. Bright red, yellow and orange were all represented.

For her project, she plans to summarize this information and discuss the waggle dance recruitment of workers.

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