Measurement Of Distance And Direction

The ability to bees to communicate distance and direction to a food source requires that the recruiting bee and the recruits be able to measure these parameters. The study of how bees do this provides an example of how the dance language gives a readout of the perception of the bees. This in turn makes possible sophisticated analyses of the mechanisms by which bees acquire the information, analyses that are vastly more difficult to perform with insects that do not report their findings in a format entomologists have learned to decode.

Von Frisch found that wind, height differences between the feeder and hive, or adding additional weights or airfoils to bees changed the tempo of their dances. This finding indicated that something about these conditions had changed the bees' perception of distance to the food source. One aspect that was changed was the time of flight to the source, but the changes in dance tempo did not correlate well with the changes in flight time, and so this was rejected as the way the bees measured distance. Instead, it was concluded that the bees were measuring energy use, because all these conditions would affect energy use. This was consistent with observations that, on the flight to the food source, either a headwind or flying uphill would increase perceived distance, whereas either a tailwind or flying downhill would decrease it.

However, more recent work by Harald Esch and others suggests that it is not energy that is measured, but the movement of landscape objects across the visual field, or optic flow. Humans experience the apparent motion of landmarks as faster when riding in a car than when flying in an airplane. Similarly, when a bee flies close to the ground, she experiences rapid optic flow, whereas at greater altitudes the optic flow is less. In von Frisch's experiments, the changing conditions also affected the height off the ground of the bees' flight, so that energy use and optic flow were confounded. In experiments in which bees are trained to feeders at different distances from the ground, the distance that a bee perceives, as indicated by the tempo of her dances, is shorter for higher feeders, even though more energy is needed to fly to them and the length of the flight path is greater. The progress of entomologists' understanding of the mechanism by which bees measure distance provides an excellent example of how the conclusions from an experiment may reject incorrect hypotheses, but may also accept incorrect ones, if the predictions of the latter are the same as another alternative hypothesis not considered in the design of the experiment.

Martin Lindauer described the way in which bees measure the angle of their body with respect to gravity, using groups of sensory hairs in the joints between head and thorax and thorax and abdomen. When Lindauer severed the nerves to these hairs, bees were no longer able to do oriented dances on a vertical comb. When flying in the field, bees use their compound eyes to measure their angle of flight relative to the sun, searching out the patterns of polarized light in the blue sky itself, even if the sun is not visible. The polarized light is produced by a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering; the angles of polarization occur in a pattern that is consistent relative to the position of the sun, and this pattern moves across the sky as the earth moves relative to the sun. Rüdiger Wehner and S. Rössel discovered that the bees use a "celestial compass" to interpret the polarization patterns, which consists of the layout of ommatidia in the dorsal portion of the bees' compound eyes. Each ommatidium is selectively sensitive to a particular angle of polarization of light, and each omma-tidium also gathers light exclusively from a particular region of the visual field of the bee. The layout of the ommatidia is such that when a bee is facing directly away from the sun, each ommatidium is looking at the region of the sky that contains the angle of polarized light to which it is most sensitive. Thus, as the bee rotates in flight, the summed response from these specialized ommatidia will reach a peak when the bee is aligned with the sun azimuth and fall away as she turns off it. Although the way in which a bee uses this system to hold a fixed course at a particular angle relative to the sun is not known yet, this compass provides a beautiful example of how a solution to a tremendously complex analysis can be built into the design of the sensory system, so that only relatively simple neural processing is needed to execute the behavior.

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