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Book excerpt: Navigational genius of insects


The bees’ waggle dance:

When a scout bee locates a good feeding source, it navigates back to the hive and communicates the location of the feeding source through what is known as a waggle dance. The Goulds call this curious dance “the second most information-rich exchange in the animal world,”5 second only to human language. That is quite a statement considering the communication is by insects with only 950,000 neurons, compared to humans with about eighty-five billion. Honey bee brains are less than one cubic millimeter in size.6 That is, a thousand of their brains together wouldn’t amount to even a single cubic centimeter. A curiosity is that honey bees have brains only about half the volume of bumble bee brains, yet exhibit a larger repertoire and more complex behaviors than bumble bees.7

While the details of the waggle dance are still not completely understood, a significant amount of research, starting with Karl von Frisch, has revealed the basic methodology. The behavior develops in adult honey bees who have emerged from the pupa stage and chewed through the protective cell to join the colony. Honey bees are able to interpret the dance after about one week. The development includes electrophysiological changes in brain neurons, evident when comparing mature foragers with newly emerged bees.8 Therefore, the behavior appears to be a combination of innate capabilities and pre-programmed learning.

Eric Cassell, “Navigational Genius — Not Just for the Birds” at Evolution News and Science Today (November 16, 2021)

The book is Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021).

All just happened randomly, of course.

You may also wish to read: At Mind Matters News: The intelligence birds and bees naturally have — and we don’t. Richard W. Stevens: You’re aiming to find your childhood friend’s home in a new city. A map helps; GPS is better. Accessing all that previously-acquired mapmakers’ knowledge, employing all of that satellite, radio and computing technology, you’ll probably (although not certainly) reach your goal. Could some “dumb bird” do any better? Way better, actually.

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The vector nature of the dance makes good neurological sense for critters with compound eyes covering most of the compass. Place yourself so the sun is hitting Lens Group #270, and flap your wings 1000 times for each of my wiggles. Our hippocampus is also an internal vector map for short-term location memory, with locations around the edge in the same position as when seen. But it clearly takes a lot more calculation and inference for binocular eyes focused forward. polistra

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