All posts by Mark Grossmann of Illinois & Missouri

About Mark Grossmann of Illinois & Missouri

Resident of Hazelwood, Missouri Formerly Belleville, Illinois Career History: Illinois Attorney College Instructor Campus Chair Paralegal Studies Program Most recently: blogging on entirely random subjects

Grossmann: What Einstein Didn’t Say about Bees

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What Einstein Didn’t Say about Bees

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois


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About the Author

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10 April 2014


In 1994, a quote attributed to Albert Einstein appeared in popular circulation:

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Einstein didn’t say that. If the great scientist ever said anything about bees, publicly, he was probably quoting someone else. The statement above was made by whoever circulated the quote in 1994 and “creatively” attributed it to Einstein.

But, then, who said it?

The prize for the closest match goes to Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck who said in his 1901 book, “The Life of the Bee”:

“[You’ve seen the bee] to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and fruits (for it is actually estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them), and possibly even our civilization, for in these mysteries all things intertwine.”

While not packing quite the punch of the modern (apocryphal) Einstein quote, Maeterlinck is perhaps the oldest commentator to link the disappearance of bees with a dire result for humanity.

While there’s no record of Einstein ever saying anything about bees, there is a short history of bee quotations attributed to him.

The Canadian Bee Journal” included a bee quotation attributed to Einstein, in 1941, but no one has ever been able to actually link the quote to Einstein. Even the writer says that he or she is quoting from memory:

“Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.”

Not until 1966, did “The Irish Beekeeper” attribute a bee quotation to Einstein that mentioned the end of mankind:

“Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared.”

But no one can find any source of, or reference to, the quotation above. “The Irish Beekeeper” attributed the quote to a 1965 issue of a French periodical, Abeilles et fleurs.   Unfortunately, despite a thorough search of that periodical’s contents, no such quote, attributed to Einstein or anyone else, could be found.

In his 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, Biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote:

“[I]f all [the bees] were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months.”

But this is, certainly, Wilson’s statement and not anyone else’s.

Finally, during a 1994 demonstration by beekeepers in Brussels, members of the National Union of French Apiculture handed out pamphlets attributing the following quotation to Albert Einstein:

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”

Again, Al never said that.  And we may never know who did.

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

& Belleville, Illinois

About the Author


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Grossmann: The Nano Hummingbird – The Original Bird ‘Bot

12 December 2013

[Nano Hummer Video]

On 17 February 2011, DARPA announced the development of the first fully functional robotic bird. [1]  The “Nano Hummingbird” or, as it is also less imaginatively called, the “Nano Air Vehicle” (“NAV”), was the successful result of a project started in 2006 by AeroVironment, Inc. under the direction of DARPA. [1] Robots, by definition, must “do work.”  And the Nano-Hummer was the first fully functional bird-drone designed and able to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

This robotic hummingbird can remain aloft for 11 minutes and attain a speed of 11 mph. [1]   With a skeleton of hollow carbon-fiber rods wrapped in fiber mesh, coated in a polyvinyl fluoride film, [5] and carrying “batteries, motors, and communications systems; as well as the video camera payload,” the robo-hummer weighs just .67 ounces. [1]

Designed to be deployed in urban environments or on battlefields, this drone is can “perch on windowsills or power lines” and even “enter buildings to observe and its surroundings” while relaying a continuous video back to its “pilot.” [video] [1]

In terms of appearance, the Nano-Hummer was, and is, quite like a hummingbird.    Although larger than the typical hummingbird, Nano-Hummer, is well within the size range of the species and is, actually, smaller than the largest of real hummingbirds. [1]   With a facade both shaped and colored to resemble the real bird, the Nano-Hummer presents the viewer with a remarkable likeness of a hummingbird. [1]

The Nano-Hummer isn’t stealth in the sense of evading radar.  Nor is it “cryptic,” that type of camouflage that blends, or disappears, into the surrounding terrain.  Rather, with the appearance of a hummingbird, the designers used a type of camouflage called “mimesis,” also termed “masquerade,” as concealment.  A camouflaged object is said to be “masqueraded” when the object can be clearly seen, but looks like something else, which is of no special interest to the observer.  And such camouflage is important to a mini-drone with the primary purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance. [1]

Designing this drone on the “hummingbird model,” however, was not done only for the purpose of camouflage.  The project’s objective included biomimicry, that is, biologically inspired engineering. [8] With the hummingbird, its amazingly diverse flight maneuvers were the object of imitation.  However, UAV’s head researcher, Matt Keennon, admits that a perfect replica of what “nature has done” was too daunting. [5]  For example, the Nano-Hummer only beats its wings 20 times a second, which is slow motion compared to the real hummingbird’s 80 beats per second. [video] [5]

Whatever the technical shortfalls, this bird-bot replicates much of the real hummingbird’s flight performance. [5]  Not only can it perform rolls and backflips [video] but, most important of all, it can hover like the real thing. [video] [5]  Part of the importance of the ability hover relates to its reconnaissance and surveillance functions.  Hovering allows the video camera to select and observe stationary targets.  However, the “hover” of both hummingbirds and bees attracts so much attention from developers of drone technology because it assures success in the most difficult flight maneuver of all — landing.  In fact, landing is the most complex part of flight, and the maneuver most likely to result in accident or disaster.

When landing, a flying object must attain the slowest speed possible before touching down.  Hovering resolves the problem neatly by assuring that the robot can stop in midair and, therefore, touch the ground or perch as zero speed.  Observe the relatively compact helicopter landing port in contrast to the long landing strip required by an airplane which must maintain forward motion when airborne.

The drone has a remarkable range of movement in flight much like the real hummingbird. [1] Nano-Hummer “can climb and descend vertically; fly sideways left and right; forward and backward; rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise; and hover in mid-air.” [1]  Both propulsion and altitude control are entirely provided by the drone’s flapping wings. [video] [1]

This remote controlled mini-drone can be maneuvered by the “pilot” without direct visual observation using the video stream alone. [1] With its small camera, this drone can relay back video images of its location. [1] The camera angle is defined by the drone’s pitch.  In forward motion, the camera provides a continuous view of the ground.  Hovering provides the best camera angle for surveying rooms. [video] [5]

To DARPA, it was particularly important that this drone demonstrate the ability to hover in a 5 mph side-wind without drift of more than one meter. [1]  The CIA’s “insectothopter,” a robotic dragonfly was developed in the 1970’s. [image] [3] This unmanned aerial vehicle “was the size of a dragonfly, and was hand-painted to look like one.” [3]  Powered by a small gasoline engine, the insectothopter proved unusable due to its inability to withstand even moderate wind gusts. [video] [3]

The Nano-Hummingbird was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011 [4] and has paved the way for the development of a whole generation of bird inspired ‘bots, including Prioria’s “Maverick,” [image] [video] and, the even more “bird-like,” Robo-Raven, which is still in development by the Army Research Laboratory. [image 1] [video] [video] Also, the development of this first small bird-bot brought the U.S. Air Force one step closer to one of the goals on its wish list: “flocks of small drones.” [7]

A flock of small drones sounds really cool – as long as the flock isn’t after me.

Grossmann: The Sun Behaving Badly – A Brief History of Solar Storms & CME’s

27 February 2014

When I think of weather, I think of sunshine and rain, hot and cold, wind and calm.  And, when I think about weather, I always think about the earth’s atmosphere.  I really never wake up in the morning worrying about what the weather is going to like – in space.

“Space weather” always seems like an odd term because there is nothing like the earth’s atmosphere in space.  Actually, there’s nothing in space.  Hence, the term “space.”  But actually, there is “something” in space, and that “something” is energy.

The term “space weather” also seems odd because the source of all space weather is the sun.  So, why not call it “solar weather?”  Well, the sun throws out so much energy that it affects all the “space” in the rest of the solar system.  So, the earth’s “energy weather” (or geomagnetic weather), is produced by the energy constantly thrown off by the sun.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

The sun constantly gives off energy, which flows in all directions.  That flow is called the solar wind.  And, in turn, the solar wind affects the earth.  The earth has its own energy field including the magnetic poles (which make compass needles point to the north).   As the “solar “wind” hits the earth’s own magnetic field, it produces visible auroras at both the North and South Poles.  The aurora to the North is called “the Northern Lights.”

The sun also has storms when the constant rush of solar wind is interrupted by explosions of energy from the surface of the sun.  Space weather’s version of lightning, solar flares, burst out of the sun in all directions.  Few strike the earth because the earth is a small target.  But, occasionally, the earth takes a hit.

If you’re an astronaut in space, solar flares are really bad news because they are fatal to humans without the protection of the earth’s atmosphere. Modern spacecraft can, but don’t necessarily, provide complete protection.  How did our early astronauts get by?  Very careful timing.  Most of us pay little attention to the “space weather” forecasts.  Fortunately for our early astronauts, NASA has always paid a great deal of attention and timed its manned missions very carefully.

Our atmosphere protects us from the negative effects of solar flares – even the worst solar flares: CME’s.  Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s) are the worst that space weather has to offer.  On the good side, these produce beautiful auroras — much bigger and brighter than usual.  No one knew about the bad side until we started using electrical power.

CME’s supercharge the earth’s atmosphere.  Electricity moves more easily through a supercharged atmosphere.   If you build up a big enough charge in the atmosphere, electricity can move through it easily. Too easily.

When the atmosphere offers less resistance than the “wires” in our appliances, the electricity “bleeds” out of the wires to the place electricity is always seeking – the ground.

This may sound “interesting” until your car or truck just stops running.  Well, unless your car or truck has a diesel engine.  Diesels don’t depend on electricity to operate (spark plugs, etc.)   Meanwhile, in your home, your electric lights would dim to a fraction of their old brightness as most of the electricity flowed out of the wires, through the air, and to the ground.  More unnerving are the lights that might start glowing even though they’re turned off.  Electricity, as it bleeds through the air, can pass into powered-down electrical appliances and cause them to begin to operate.

This is all pretty weird.  And it’s also dangerous — if you depend on a continuous supply of electrical power.  Satellites in space depend on their “wires” to carry electrical power to where it is needed.   Aircraft, even if they don’t depend on electrical transmission for their basic operation, have computers that do.  Hospitals and emergency response units depend, not only on lights, life-saving equipment, and electronic monitors but require the best possible performance from their communication equipment.  Your telephone, both cell and landline, would be substantially impaired in a severe geomagnetic storm.

The good news is that storms severe enough to produce serious electrical disruptions don’t happen very often.  In fact, researchers can determine when really serious solar storms of the past happened by examining ice cores from ancient glaciers.  Without going into the mechanics, it’s enough to say that really serious solar storms happen about ever 500 years.  However, some “less serious” ones can be real doozies.


On January 9, 2014, a lightshow was expected from space.  And “aurora watchers” followed the “space weather” forecasts.  They were disappointed when the “magnitude of the impact” was “downgraded.”  The CME that was predicted to strike the earth was much weaker than expected.  The Northern Lights didn’t expand and weren’t visible in the 48 states of the continental United States.

An aurora was visible, but over a much more limited area.  One commentator was puzzled by the problem saying, “We could see it in Norway.”  And I bet they could.  Even weak auroras are visible in, or near, the Arctic Circle.  But it takes quite a CME, of a certain type, to treat people in the temperate zone to a good show.

So, in the lower 48, we missed the Northern Light show, but we also avoided the “minor disruptions to communications and GPS” of which NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center had warning days earlier.


On Wednesday, 22 October 2003, a “brief but intense,” geomagnetic storm was caused by what NASA described as “the fourth most powerful solar flare every seen.”  The storm expanded and brightened the Northern Lights, while it also knocked out some airline communications including high-frequency voice-radio communications for aircraft flying far northern routes.  British air traffic controllers favored southerly routes for trans-Atlantic jets during the period of the storm.  Canadian spokesman Louis Garneau explained that, in an emergency, airliners could use VHF frequencies to communicate with other aircraft or military monitoring stations.

Although the storm was a direct threat to electric utilities, high frequency radio communications, satellite navigation systems and television broadcasts, there were few immediate reports of damage.  However, NOAA Space Weather Center forecaster, Larry Combs stated, “We know that our power grids are definitely feeling the effects of this.”

The North American Electric Reliability Council of Princeton, New Jersey noted no reported failures.  Crewmembers, Foale and Kaleri, of the international space station, Expedition 8, moved to the one end of the station’s service module.  They spent 20 minutes there sheltered by the special radiation shielding designed to protect the pair in case of such an event.

The Japanese space agency temporarily shut down one of its satellites and lost contact with a second. U.S. and European researchers, together with commercial satellite operators, shut down some delicate equipment, including solar panels and, carefully, turned satellite sensors away from the storm’s blast.


On July 13, 2000, NASA and NOAA were tracking a solar storm as part of a joint project with the European Space Agency.  NASA was hoping to view an intense solar flare and its energetic proton shower with the observational satellite, Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).  NOAA’s was doing the same with its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES).

This would have been an opportunity to observe, for the first time with sophisticated satellite observatories, a rare solar and geomagnetic event.  The solar flare was the guest of honor at the party.  But the party had a crasher.  An extremely powerful CME coincided with this particular flare.

The Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft was to give the first warning an hour before the arrival of the geomagnetic storm.  But the wave of particles came with such strength that the ACE’s important detectors were blinded and failed.  Without ACE, the observers could only time the arrival by watching for distortions in the Earth’s magnetic field.  They didn’t have long to wait.  The storm raged for almost nine hours.

The storm flooded cameras and star-tracking navigation devices on several satellites with solar particles compromising the devices’ operation.  Particle detectors on several NOAA and NASA spacecraft failed or were shut down to avoid damage.  Although these events hardly seem good, it could have been worse.  The Japanese Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA) was sent tumbling in orbit by the energetic wave from the sun.

On the ground, power companies struggled with geomagnetically induced currents that tripped capacitors and damaged at least one transformer. Global positioning system (GPS) accuracy degraded for several hours.

Of course, if you were an aurora watcher, you were in luck.  The aurora lightshow was seen as far south as El Paso, Texas.


A CME left the Sun’s surface on March 6, 1989.  Three and a half days later, on March 9, intense auroras formed at the poles and could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida — these were the first signs that a severe geomagnetic storm had struck the earth.

Cold War fears of a nuclear attack were triggered when the burst caused short-wave radio interference.  Disruption of radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia aroused suspicions that the Soviet government had jammed the signal.

By midnight, communications from a weather satellite were interrupted.  Another communication satellite, TDRS-1, recorded over 250 anomalies caused by the increased particles flowing into the satellite’s own electronics.  The space shuttle Discovery, on a mission at the time, experienced an unusually high reading from a pressure sensor on one of its fuel cells.  The anomalous reading disappeared after the geomagnetic storm ended.

Beneath all of Quebec, Canada is a large layer of rock.  This rock layer acted as shield against the natural discharge of the electricity from the highly charged atmosphere into the ground.  Without another path of discharge, the powerful atmospheric electrical potential found its path of least resistance along long utility transmission lines.  Circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, and Quebec’s James Bay network experienced a 9-hour power failure.


An American astronomer described the solar flare that caused this storm as “one of the largest, if not the largest, ever recorded.”  Communications were disrupted worldwide. The aurora, the Northern Lights, could be seen as far south as Washington D.C.  Oddly, it is extremely difficult to find any information or even copies of contemporary news articles about this event.


A CME caused a geomagnetic storm which lasted from May 13th through the 15th in 1921.  The Northeastern United States experienced a checkerboard of blackouts.  The Northern Lights were bright and visible throughout the northern United States.  And the timing of the show was fortunate because so many other activities came to a halt as fuses blew and telegraph equipment became so damaged that service slowed to a complete stop throughout the United States.  On the other hand, radio waves were strengthened by the storm allowing intercontinental reception.

17 NOVEMBER 1882

Another geomagnetic storm caused by the arrival of a solar flare on November 17, 1882.  Some telegraph systems were rendered useless.  The switchboard at the Chicago Western Union offices caught fire several times and the equipment was badly damaged.  In Milwaukee, an electric lamp, although “turned off,” was reported to have lit up.  In the UK, telegraphs were strongly affected.


Remember those researchers who checked the ice cores for evidence of past CME’s?  They found that a really big one hits the earth causing a really big geomagnetic storm about once every 500 years.

Well, the last one of those happened in 1859.

The “Carrington Event” began when an amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington, observed the sun suddenly grow larger and brighter.  He knew that the sun had never done that before.  He also knew that a flare from the sun’s surface would be visible as a bright emission – sort of like watching a gun being fired.  Figuratively speaking, you’d see the plume of smoke and might even have an impression of something leaving the barrel of the gun.  Or, at least, you would . . . unless the barrel of the gun was aimed right at you.

What Richard Carrington couldn’t have known, at the time, was that the Sun’s size and brightness only appeared to change. A CME, in the form of a circular cloud was expanding out from the Sun. This “halo coronal mass ejection,” was so bright and emitted so much light that the sun appeared to grow in both size and brightness.  Also, Carrington couldn’t have known why the “halo” cloud appeared to be almost perfectly circular. That apparent shape indicated that the CME was headed right at him.

The CME arrived about 17 hours later.  Electrical equipment was relatively rare in 1859, but telegraph pylons threw sparks. Some telegraph operators were shocked by their equipment even after disconnection from a power supply. Other telegraph operators reported sending and receiving signals without external power — the equipment powered only by the electricity in the atmosphere. Magnetic instruments, as simple as a compass, wouldn’t give consistent readings.

Auroras, like the northern lights, which are seldom visible beyond the Arctic Circle, could be seen as far south as Venezuela. The Northern Lights were so bright in the Rockies that the glow was mistaken for sunrise by gold miners, who got up and started cooking breakfast.

In the northeastern U.S., people could read newspapers in the middle of the night by the light of the aurora. A writer for the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser waxed lyrical in his report, “The light was greater than that of the Moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested.”

That was 155 years ago.  If the averages hold, we have about another 345 years before the next “really big” event.

Grossmann: A Different Flavor – Just How Smart Are Octopuses?

28 November 2013

Octopuses have a rather creepy reputation.   Let’s just say that, what the creeping spider is to dry land, the eight-tentacled octopus is to the sea — a “monster” of the deep.  These creatures have thousands of suckers on their eight “arms,” squirt dark ink, change color, and can squeeze their, sometimes, large bodies through amazingly small holes.  Also, they can move when they want to move having the ability to propel themselves by producing a jet of water in the same way jet engines propel aircraft through the air.

The octopus is a celebrated predator.   Well equipped for the hunt, the octopus has a parrot-like beak, a tongue covered with teeth, and poisonous venom.  Superficially, there’s nothing about the octopus that would put anyone in a warm or cuddly mood.  But like some seemingly forbidding people you may have met, it seems that the better you get to know the octopus, the more favorable (and friendlier) your opinion becomes.

Scientists have recently discovered that octopuses might be intelligent – much more intelligent than anyone had ever suspected.  However, this is one of those discoveries that seems like “yesterday’s news.”  When you read accounts of octopus behavior, the fact that octopuses are intelligent is like the proverbial “elephant in the living room.”  How could anyone have missed it?

Consider Otto, an octopus resident at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany.  Otto shares a large tank with hermit crabs, which he probably traumatizes on a regular basis with his ideas of fun.  Among other activities, Otto likes to juggle the helpless crabs, throwing them, not in the air, but up above him into the tank’s water.  Being repeatedly tossed by a two-handed juggler would be bad enough, but you can only cringe at the thought of the experience with eight-hands.

Otto’s behavior isn’t particularly unusual.  In an experiment, Roland Anderson, gave octopuses small pill bottles, each of a different color, to evaluate the creatures’ color preferences. Most of the octopuses lost interest when they realized the bottles weren’t food, but one blew a “modulated” jet of water at the bottle sending it swirling to the other end of the tank and back to the sender – repeating this action 20 times.  Anderson compared the action to the human version of bouncing a ball.  Another octopus, in the same group, was caught using its water jet to propel its bottle back and forth over the surface of the water.

What’s so significant about all this?  It’s play.  Anderson’s observations appeared in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “Only intelligent animals play—animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

Although, sometimes, Otto seems more like a candidate for the staring role in an upcoming documentary, “When Good Octopuses Go Bad,” he demonstrates a mastery of tool-use when he throws stones into front glass of his tank (damaging the aquarium glass several times).  In spite of Otto’s disruptions and vandalism, his behaviors are clearly intelligent.

Octopuses gather building materials as part of what is, sometimes, called their fortress behaviors.  These creatures tend to settle in a location and fortify the perimeter with a variety of building materials.  And, in the act of collecting these building materials, the octopus displays one of its most amazing characteristics.  Most animals either use or discard an item that is of no immediate use.  In other words, most animals have no ability to delay gratification and, therefore, do not appreciate the need to find, hold, or transport items that may be of value at a later time.

The Veined Octopus, however, retrieves discarded coconut shells, transports them over a distance, and reassembles them to build a shelter.  This behavior demonstrates selection of a tool and, then, holding the tool exclusively for a later use.

You might think of this behavior as resembling grocery shopping.  When you go to the store, you don’t eat the food you want straight off the shelves and, then, leave without taking any food with you.  Rather, you gather food, groceries, and take it home for future use.

And, it so happens that octopuses often gather food in a way not so different from human grocery shopping.  As it hunts, this creature picks up all the food it can carry and transports the load home.  It will eat the food, at its leisure, later.  With eight arms, an octopus can carry a lot of food, but sometimes its eyes are bigger than its eight-armed carrying capacity.  If it finds its load is too heavy for the trip home, it simply makes an unscheduled stop, eats its “groceries” down to a portable volume and, then, continues home with what’s left.

But octopuses demonstrate other intelligent behaviors.  They are also problem solvers. Wilson Menashi designed a puzzle consisting of three plexiglas cubes each with a different type of latch.  When food was placed in the first box and given to an octopus, the creature quickly managed to figure out how to open the box.  Then, the first box was locked in the second box.  Again, the octopus quickly learned to open both boxes to get to the food.  The same swift mastery followed the addition of a third box.  Sadly, when the octopus’s food of choice, crab, is unavailable, some octopuses turn their problem solving abilities to crime.  That is, octopuses sometimes rob lobster traps, which they learn to open with relative ease.

So, you would never want to snooze on the beach with a crab in your pocket.  That crab would be awfully tempting to passing octopus.  Oh, . . . you thought you’d be safe because you weren’t in the water?  Surprise!  Many octopuses seem never to have learned that they are sea-dwelling creatures.  They tend to jump onto land at the least provocation.

An octopus was recently, not just caught on land, but also caught on video grabbing a snack on the beach — completely out of the water.  These creatures like to eat crabs so much that they have been known to climb on board fishing boats, jump into containers of dead crabs, and pig-out. As a matter of fact, aquariums sometimes have difficulty keeping these creatures in the water.

Otto, for example, thought the overhead light in the Sea Star Aquarium was too bright, and his irritation was only relieved by occasional mysterious power failures.  While the failures gave Otto a break from the bright light, the cessation in the filtration systems in the aquarium’s tanks was a positive danger.  When the power outages became more frequent, the staff organized a stake-out of the area, day and night, to find the cause.  On the third night, Otto climbed out of his tank and directed his jet-stream of water at the irritating light above his tank and continued to do so until the system shorted and the power failed.  The light has been re-installed in a location beyond the range of Otto’s water-jet.

Octopuses frequently put their water-jets to other creative uses.  Octopus Truman of the New England Aquarium developed an aversion to one volunteer and used his water-jet to soak her with salt water at every opportunity.  She eventually quit her volunteer position, but returned for a visit a few months later.  As she entered the lab she was drenched in saltwater by Truman’s jet.  Apparently, Truman remembered her.  He had not sprayed anyone with water since her departure months earlier.

Researching her senior thesis in the octopus lab at Middlebury College, Alexa Warburton often struggled to remove reluctant octopuses from their tanks. The creatures had mastered all the skills I employed on a particular day when I tried to avoid attending the first grade.  The octopuses would hide in the corners of their tanks or hold on to objects and not let go. In fact, octopuses in captivity escape their tanks with great frequency.  When the creatures were removed from their tank, a few used the net as a kind of trampoline bouncing off the net and onto the floor.  Then, they’d make a run for it.  And they’d “run,” Warburton emphasized, “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat.”  “It’s so weird!”

When you understand how octopuses behave, it’s tough to understand how their intelligence could have been overlooked for so long.  Perhaps, in the past, science has been too physiologically minded.

For example, several species of birds have recently demonstrated remarkably high levels of intelligence and even self-awareness.  The last common ancestor of human beings and birds roamed the earth about 300 million years ago.  During the last 300 million years, the brains of birds and mammals developed along separate lines.  Scientists were sure that the mammalian brain’s neocortex made certain species, including human beings, self-aware (i.e., conscious).  Problem.  Several species of birds pass all the self-awareness tests with flying colors, but their brains are the size of walnuts and they have no neocortex.

Then, there’s the octopus.  Octopuses are mollusks, invertebrates, closely related to the clam.  Clams don’t even have brains.  The last common ancestor of human beings and octopuses lived between 500 and 700 million years ago.  From that point on, human and octopus brains developed along separate lines in quite different environments.  The octopus brain is about the size of a walnut with only about 130 million neurons compared to the 100 billion of the typical human brain.  However, you don’t need these numbers to see some staggering differences.  For example, humans have one brain, but “three-fifths of the octopus’s neurons” are in the octopus’s arms and not their “head.”  It seems that intelligence doesn’t have as much to do with brain size as was once supposed.

Perhaps, the intelligence of octopuses was overlooked because of their lack of social behavior.  These creatures are one of the most unsocial animals you could imagine.  Their contacts with their fellow creatures result in either one octopus eating the other or mating.  There are no other social encounters with their peers.  Period.  In the first instance, predation, one octopus dies when it’s eaten.  In the second, mating, both octopuses die because disorientation and death follow swiftly.

Much of our appraisal of the intelligence of any animal is based on observation of social interaction.  But, in the case of the unsocial octopus, you have to observe its relationship with its inanimate, physical environment to appreciate its intelligent behavior and evaluate the scope of its intelligence.  Strangely, the captive octopuses that are the subject of study in laboratories seem to enjoy a richer relationship with their human captors, than any of their own species.  But, perhaps, even this relationship is the simple result of the dependence of the captive octopuses on their human captors for survival (food).

Maybe it’s the plain strangeness of both the octopus and its intelligence that so long delayed the “discovery” of the creature’s intelligent behavior.  Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith compared encountering the octopus with “meeting an intelligent alien.”  And, indeed, everything seems so “out-of-whack” when you learn about the octopus.  For example, octopus communication is limited to changes of color.  An octopus uses color changes to camouflage itself, express emotions, and warn off (frighten) predators.  But the octopus’s use of a wide range of color displays becomes confusing when you discover that these creatures are colorblind.  But, then, you discover that octopus “skin contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye.”  So, octopuses may be able to see color with their skin.

In the end, what can we say about the octopus as an intelligent being?  It is an alien.  An immensely ancient alien that evolved on the ocean floor — the oldest and most enduring environment provided by the hydrosphere we call Earth.  However, “alien” is a relative term.  Compared to the octopus, we are the newcomers.  We are one of a group of strange, and relatively new, life forms that live on those limited peaks that rise above and beyond the more natural aquatic environment.  Those peaks rise up into a strange rarefied level of atmosphere—a level, not of water, but composed entirely of gases, nitrogen and oxygen.

As intelligent beings, we continue to confront the all too obvious evidence that “we are not alone.”  But I’m not talking about intelligent life on other planets.  “We are not alone” on our own planet.  The creatures around us have developed intelligence and self-awareness but, often, not “on our terms.”  These “others” have developed out of their own environmental and physiological roots.  Our planet is home to more and stranger environments (worlds) than we regularly or comfortably imagine.   It seems that intelligence and self-awareness are not a single, defined point at one end of a yard stick.  Rather, as Dr. Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge suggests, intelligence and self-awareness may come “in flavors.”

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

About the Author

Grossmann: The “Land Shark,” The “Land Catfish” & The “Land Octopus”

31 October 2013

Decades ago, the film, Jaws, was credited with terrifying movie goers to the point that they avoided beaches for fear of being attacked by a real version of the film’s animatronic great white shark. [image] [1] Then, there was a sequel with promotional trailers warning:  “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” [image] But at least you were safe on dry land.  Right?

Saturday Night Live’s writers decided to take away that last refuge of safety by presenting a predator that could strike on land or sea.  In 1975, the first in a series of SNL sketches featured a hapless urban dweller who hears a knock on their front door.  When the caller is asked to identify themselves, a voice on the other side of door says “repair man” or “door-to-door salesman.”  Then, when the door is opened, in plunges the “Land Shark” (or a giant foam rubber version of the “Land Shark”), which completely consumes the victim. [2] [image] [video]

Well, the Land Shark was just a joke.  Wasn’t it?

It was.  But, like more than a few fictional, on-screen characters, the Land Shark seems to have an imitator.

Just when you thought it was safe to go near the water?

Catfish in France have learned to hunt pigeons. [3] [4] Fishermen on the France’s River Tarn were more than shocked to witness catfish “loitering in shallow water near sandbars populated by pigeons.”  When one of the birds wandered too near the water line, it was a “Land Shark” experience for the bird and a meal for the catfish. [video]

When Julien Cucherousset of Paul Sabatier University heard the story from the bewildered fisherman, he captured footage of the “event.”   The on-line video went viral. The first time I saw the video, my reaction was almost that of an academic naturalist.  “How fascinating,” I thought.

At least, I thought it was fascinating until I learned that these catfish were three to four feet long.  So, I am only about 2 feet longer that the largest of these “Land Catfish.”  My next thought?  Would I . . . ?  Yes, I assured myself.   I’d win — if caught in a shoreline struggle with an overly aggressive four-foot catfish.  Then, I reflected.  Suppose I was sick and weak that day?  I didn’t try to answer that question.  I just . . .  thought of something else.  [5]

At first, I was comforted by the fact that this particular species of catfish wasn’t native to France, but had been introduced to the Tarn River about 30 years ago.  I imagined some weird, predacious species of catfish from the depths of the Amazonian jungle had been imported and accidentally released into the river.  But, when the full story unfolded, it turned out that these were just plain old catfish.  And they had been intentionally released into the river. [6]

Over the last three decades, the waters of the Tarn became less populated with crayfish and other smaller fish.  So, the catfish began feeding on land prey — a behavior no member of its species is known to have engaged in before.  These fish hover under the water near the shore watching their prospective, terrestrial prey.  Then, when an opportune moment presents itself, they leap out of the water onto the dry land, grab their prey, and leap back into the water taking there land-dwelling victim with them.  Then, the “Land Catfish” enjoys a leisurely meal in its underwater home. [7]

Autopsies of the catfish in the area revealed that not all of the fish were eating pigeons.  However, those that were tended to abandon their old diet of crayfish and other small fish focusing more exclusively on land prey.  [8]

Somehow, I found the casual way in which these animals extended their hunting range disconcerting.   But more disturbing was the autopsy’s suggestion that some fish had developed a taste for land animals — ignoring their old fare of crayfish and other small fish to focus almost entirely on pigeons.  As a land-based mammal who enjoys strolling along the shores of natural bodies of water, I’m still not entirely comfortable with these developments.

One writer, attempting to minimize the strangeness of it all, noted that African crocodiles jump out of the water and grab zebras.   And whales beach themselves on the ice to nab penguins for dinner.  But these are hardly apt comparisons.  Crocks and alligators are air-breathing lizards.  They just hang-out in the water.  Whales are also air-breathing mammals who have adopted a fish-like lifestyle. [9]

Neither of these examples could compare to a plain old fish intentionally jumping out of the water to grab some terrestrial creature, drag it into the water, and eat it.  I’ve watched scenes like this in old horror movies.  I’ve always loved to stroll along the shore of almost any waterway, but is it safe?  Where I live, my favorite body of water is the Mississippi River.  After seeing this video, I checked.  The Mississippi is teaming with catfish – those same enterprising, opportunistic, and hungry sea-beasts that are scarfing down pigeons in France!

On calmer reflection, I realized that the Land Catfish is actually engaged in the mirror image of human sea diving.  Somehow, I’d always thought that land creatures dived into the water to feed on unsuspecting sea creatures.  Not the other way around.  And human beings had the distinction of being the only creature that could learn to dive into the water for food (and maybe a few pearls).  Now, the Land Catfish has turned the tables on us.

But the Land Catfish isn’t the only sea creature that feels free to promenade out onto the dry land to pick up a meal.

A few decades ago, I remember strolling along a Sarasota beach at midnight — my feet kicking through the white sand.  In those distant days, you could still find yourself quite alone on the beach at night.  Absolutely taken with the beauty of the Gulf, I remember thinking how nice it would be to just stretch out on the sand and sleep in the cool breeze off the water until sunrise.

All those years ago, I would still have been quite safe from human interference, but I would never have thought of the possibility of something coming up out of the sea.  I can imagine the psychological trauma I would have experienced if, in the middle of that peaceful night’s sleep, I had stirred awake and opened my eyes to see an eye looking back at me:  the “dominant eye” of a local octopus.  The creature wouldn’t have been interested in me. It would have just been “passing by.”  But, after an experience like that, I would have moved to the top of a mountain — as far away from the water’s edge as I could get.

Not long after I saw the “Land Catfish” video, a story broke about a “Land Octopus.”  The terrestrial excursions of the octopuses have stayed pretty much out of the public eye until recently when one of these strange creatures was caught in the act – on video. [video]  An octopus was seen grabbing lunch, not while roaming where it belongs – underwater — but, instead, crawling around on the beach casually grabbing a few snacks.  The witnesses got a video camera and the rest is internet history.  [10]

How long has this sort of thing been going on, I wondered?  Well, octopuses have been doing this since . . . forever.

The Land Octopus starring in the San Mateo County, California video was not engaged in any particularly unusual behavior.  Marine biologist James Wood explained that several species of octopuses make brief forays onto land for a meal. [11]  Most discomforting was his explanation of why the public is so ignorant of this particular octopus behavior.  Octopuses leave the water all the time.  They just do it when they won’t be seen.  Wood explained that most octopuses are nocturnal, sneaking out of the water at night to enjoy their meals unobserved. [12]  Well, with this factoid, my nocturnal seashore walks are over.

The octopus caught on video was probably engaged in the octopus version of grocery shopping.  Julian Finn, a senior curator of marine invertebrates at the Museum Victoria in Australia explained that octopuses frequently emerge and hunt in tidal pools when the tidal waters recede.  The octopus examines these “grocery shelves” either with its eyes, (octopuses have rather good vision), or feel for food with its outstretched arms (tentacles?). [13]

However, not so typically, the cephalopod shopper in this video is seen discarding an empty crab shell during its shopping spree — after eating the occupant.  Either this octopus was particularly hungry and couldn’t wait to get home, with the crab serving as a kind of fast food snack or, even with eight arms, carrying all those groceries got to be too taxing.  If the “groceries” get too heavy, octopuses often stop and eat their way to a lighter load. [14]

However, shopping isn’t the only thing that brings octopuses out of the water and onto dry land.  Finn explained that octopuses also “lurch” out of the water onto land to escape danger.  Wood recalled an incident in which he was chasing and photographing a common octopus “when it crawled out of the water, across eight feet of rocks and went back into the water” apparently hoping this maneuver would confuse the pursuing photographer. [15]

Mercifully, octopuses aren’t interested in eating people.  Hostile interactions between octopuses and people happen when the octopus perceives a person as a threat rather than as a potential meal.

Still, even if I’m not on the menu, I wouldn’t like to encounter an octopus as I was strolling or resting on dry land.  Imagine if I’d paused to catch my breath on that eight foot expanse of rocks when the Land Octopus jumped out of the water in its attempt to shake the pursuing James Wood.  After literally running into an octopus on dry land, you can bet that it would be a long time before I thought it was safe to go anywhere near the water.

Of interest:

Land Shark (Saturday Night Live)

SoundEagle in Debating Animal Artistry and Musicality

Grossmann: Bees Seek New Careers – Tired of Sweat-Shop Apiaries and CCD?

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13 February 2014

The fate of bees, generally, is a matter of great concern these days.  Bee populations throughout the world, and particularly in the United States and Europe, are dropping rapidly and mysteriously.  Without the bees’ unique service as pollinators, the value of yearly agriculture output would drop by billions of dollars.  Without bees, our food supply would plummet and a good portion of the people on earth would begin to starve – quickly.

The problem has a name CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder, but no one is sure what it is.  The best guess is that bees are weakened by a variety of factors until their immune systems collapse.  Then, they contract, and are killed, by an unrelated disease, leaving researchers to trace back through the maze to the root cause or causes.

But let’s look at the world from the bee’s perspective.  What is it like to live a bee’s life?  Right now, a terrible plague, CCD, is hanging over bee populations all over the world.  And what would the surviving bees say, if asked about their daily life?

Well, I think it would go something like this.

Interviewer: What is it like to work as a pollinator, Ms. Bee?

Bee: Work!  We aren’t worker-bees anymore!  We’re slaves being worked to death.

Interviewer: I don’t understand.  Don’t you live out in nature.  Living and working as you have for thousands of years?

Bee: Natural bee’s life!  Not even close! First, we’re fed chemicals to make us more active during pollination season.  It’s like the stuff they give to athletes before competition.  We don’t recover until about 3 months after the pollination season is over.

And, during pollination season, we’re trucked hundreds of miles on bumpy roads 24-hours a day so we can’t sleep.  And we don’t get any food.  They’re afraid we won’t be aggressive enough pollinators unless were starving.

Interviewer: Yes, but when you get to the fields, you get to chow down . . . ?

Bee: What?!  They release twice as many bees into those fields as are needed to pollinate the available blossoms.  That’s so they can make sure every blossom gets pollinated.  So, most of us get hardly anything to eat.  And, we were starving already.

Interviewer: But, then, they feed you.

Bee: No.  Then, they starve us for another day — so we’ll be “aggressive” about gathering honey.  Remember?    No wonder we’re dropping like flies.  Like I said, it takes months for us to recover after the big pollination season.  The only time we get to eat is when we’re resting off-season.  After a few years of this . . .  Let’s just say I wouldn’t cry if I never saw a blossom again.

[Nervously, the interviewer pauses – afraid to bring up the next subject.]

Interviewer: [cautiously] I want to ask you about . . . pesticides.

Bee: Pesticides! Don’t even get me started about pesticides!

A bee’s life?  If I had these working conditions, I’d look for a new career.  I’m sure many honeybees fall victim to CCD yearly.  But the more I hear about the honeybees’ life in the hive, the more I wonder if some are sneaking away to alternative careers to escape the sweatshop conditions of employment as a “pollinator.”  Honeybee’s have something going for them.  After thousands of years of smelling flowers, they’ve got good noses . . . .



I can imagine honeybees buzzing around windows and ducking into homes and libraries to catch a look at the internet hoping to see one of those ads, “A Career in Health Care – Train in less than . . . 10 minutes?!”  Yes, learn advanced medical diagnostics, for bees, in less than 10 minutes. What can you expect to learn to diagnose?

Tuberculosis, lung, skin and pancreatic cancer.

However, there is one catch.  You must be a honeybee, Apis mellifera! Other species need not apply.  What’s so special about these bees?  They have an unbelievably acute sense of smell.  They can detect airborne molecules in the parts-per-trillion range.  What does that mean?  Well, let’s just say this puts “sniffer dogs” to shame.

But what does smell have to do with diagnosing diseases?  Do people with certain diseases smell?  No!  But their breath carries an odor that indicates the presence of certain diseases.  Technically called “biomarkers” these chemical odors are associated with specific diseases.  Odors that honeybees can detect.

A bee might ask, “What sort of working conditions?”

The bees work in a glass structure designed by Susana Soares of Portugal.  When the patient exhales into that same glass structure, the bees must fly into a smaller chamber (within the larger glass chamber) if they smell disease. [image]

The next question the bee might ask, “What about the training?”

The training takes about 10 minutes.  The bees are exposed to a biomarker odor associated with a particular disease.  With each exposure they are fed a solution of water and sugar until they associate the odor with the reward.

“Reward, huh?” muses the honeybee applicant.  “What sort of benefits can I expect?”  “Are these job secure?”

The answer.  The 10 minute training will last for life.  Of course, your employer has to keep your skills sharp by rewarding you with water and sugar repeatedly.

“So,” the bee muses, “I only have to train once, and I’ll get rewarded almost constantly with water and sugar?”  “Sweet!”

And everyone’s wondering why bees leave their hives and don’t come back.


Honey bees can be trained to detect cancer “in ten minutes”


The DEA may be planning to use bees for security-related activities. “Security-related activities?”  Yes, bees may be rapidly replacing those clumsy flea-bitten beasts on four legs — drug-sniffing dogs.  Remember a bee’s nose put’s the canine sniffer to shame. A small hive of honeybees is easier to carry and care for than those hounds with their endless vaccinations, flea powder, and licensing requirements.

What working conditions can the bees expect? The same cushy conditions as those in medical diagnostics: Job security with constant rewards in the form of food – water and sugar.  But, instead of a glass jar, these bees work in a box. What do they do in the box. The same thing they did in the jar. It’s all about the bee’s amazing sense of smell.

Again, remember those noses. The bees don’t even have to leave home, but live in a mobile home or, rather, a box.  When air is blown through their “buzz box,” their responsive behavior alerts officers to the presence of drugs.

The box works on the same principle as the glass jar in medical diagnostics. The bees are trained to recognize the smell of a particular drug through rewards. When the air blows through the box, if the smell of contraband is detected, the bees react. But the buzz box is an especially easy gig – the bees don’t even have to fly. All they have to do is stick their tongues out. The users will recognize this, not as a sign of disrespect, but as preparation for meal as the bees associate the smell of drugs with a reward.

As far back as 2006, researchers at the Rothamsted Research Centre in Hertfordshire, UK were testing the first prototype of the buzz box.  It is being manufactured and marketed by Inscentinel a related company. Inscentinel’s General Manager, Rachael Carson, says that this technology could be used to detect more than drugs and might even be used to monitor food quality.

Rothamsted Research Centre


But with research also emphasizing security-related applications, such as the detection of TNT, Semtex, gunpowder and other explosives, another related career will soon be open to our job-seeking honeybees.



Remember the sign that used to say, “We’re looking for a few good dogs.” Well, the word “dogs” has been crossed out and “bees” written-in above it.

The same buzz box in which bees detect the scent of drugs, works just as well with the scent of explosives. This opens a wide range of civilian and military careers to our career-switching bees. The “B Teams” (bee teams) in the buzz boxes are building an impressive test record detecting explosives hidden in shipments passing through busy cargo airports.

The big losers here are the “former drug-sniffing” dogs. There may be a canine unemployment issue as man’s best friend starts pounding the pavement looking for work after losing out to the new, cheaper, and less care-intensive honeybee.


American researchers have, and are, experimented with mine-searching bees as part of combat landmine clearance. However, landmines can remain hidden in the ground long after hostilities have ended. During the peace, after war, the job of finding and removing “abandoned” landmines is called “humanitarian demining.”


Croatian researchers heard about the honeybee’s amazing nose and are, now, training bees to find unexploded landmines. About 750 square kilometers (466 square miles) of Croatia and the Balkans may still be filled with mines from the Balkan wars in the 1990’s.

Nikola Kezic, a professor at Zagreb University and an expert on the behavior of honeybees, has proposed an experiment: Bees have an almost perfect sense of smell – one that can quickly detect the scent of explosives. Can the insect be trained through food rewards to detect the smell of TNT?  TNT is the most frequent explosive used in the landmines.

The problem is that the smell of TNT evaporates very quickly. Too quickly for dogs or rats to detect. (Yes, rats have been used in landmine detection.) However, neither of these animals have a nose anywhere near as sensitive as that of the honeybee.

For these experiments, the bees will be trained by mixing a small quantity of TNT in with food — water and sugar. After the bees learn to associate the smell of TNT with food, they will be released into a field in which small quantities of TNT have been placed in various locations. If they can locate the TNT in the field, the bees should be able to smell the traces of TNT from a buried land mine. The Croatian researchers are optimistic about the early test results.

And speaking of “humanitarian” applications, let’s not forget the welfare or our dogs (and, apparently, even our rats). This is one career that the dogs and rats will be happy to leave behind. Although dogs can, sometimes, sniff out land mines they are rather heavy animals. Weight on the surface of the ground — above a landmine — doesn’t promise anything good for the locating canine. If a particular dog is successful in locating landmines, it tends to enjoy a very short career.

In contrast the bees remain airborne, and can not only detect TNT, but live to sniff another day.


At least one bee researcher expressed dismay with all of these new careers for the honeybee. The fear is that putting honeybees in these unfamiliar boxes and jars could cause stress that would affect the insect’s performance.  However, when you review the “unnatural” life of the modern “pollinating” honeybee, nothing about any of these new careers could be remotely stressful. So far, the bees seem to thoroughly enjoy the light work schedule and frequent rewards.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, someday soon, the almond orchards of California will have a serious honeybee shortage. CCD? Sure. Bees are dying in record numbers. But, just maybe, more than a few are escaping to alternative careers with comfortable working conditions, generous benefits, and long term security. Maybe even bees know a “better deal” when they find it . . . or smell it.

Grossmann: Dance Talkin’ – How the Bees Say It

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13 February 2014

Bees?  Are they dancing or are they talking?  Are they talking or are they dancing?  But wait!  They’re doing both! . . . at the same time!  It’s called the waggle dance.  It’s, at least, one of the ways bees talk to each other.  What is the dance like?  Well, it involves waggling.  And, before the dance was understood to be a kind of language, at least one person who saw it, Nicholas Unhoch, thought the bees’ danced just for a good time —  enjoying “jollity.”  Then, Karl von Frisch got the idea that the bees were talking with the waggle dance.  He was a patient man.  He spent years observing and cataloging the “language” of the dance.

The dance is called a “recruitment” dance because the dancing bee is trying to get other bees in the hive to travel to a particular location at which, the waggle-dancer promises, the bees will be rewarded with loads of honey.

The dance language goes like this.  Imagine one of those old dance-step charts, showing footprints, which would be put on the floor to train would-be dancers.  The bee-version would be tacked up on the wall of the hive — actually, attached to the front of the honeycomb.  With bees, dancing is more of an “up and down” affair – unlike the human “back and forth” dance movement.

On the chart, you’ll see one straight line up the center; then, two lines curve out to the right and left at the top and, then, bending down and back inward to reconnect to the bottom of the straight center line. The bee dancer may follow this circuit more than 100 times.

The dancing bee follows that straight center line upward from the bottom to the top waggling all the way. This is called the waggle phase.  Then, when the waggle-dancer reaches the top of the straight center line, it stops waggling and goes to the right and back down to the bottom of the center line.  Then, it waggles its way back up to the top and, turning left this time, stops waggling as it goes back down to the bottom and repeats its climb to the top waggling all the way.

The Waggle Dance

But what does the dance say?  Well, first, it’s about direction.  If the bee waggle-dances absolutely straight up from bottom to top, before turning left or right, it means that, when the recruited bees leave the hive, they will find the honey by going in the exact direction of the sun in the sky.  If the “waggler” dances upward at even the slightest angle to the right side or the left, that is the exact angle to the right or left of the sun in the sky that the other bees must fly to find the honey.

Not only are waggle-dancing bees really good with angles, but these bees know how the sun moves.  Even if the bees linger in the hive for a long time after seeing the dance, it won’t throw the waggle dance directions off a bit.  The bees will compensate for the sun’s change of position by making the precise corrective adjustment necessary to locate and, then, follow the correct direction.

But knowing the direction of the honey is only half of what the recruited bees need to know.  To find the honey, they also need to know how far they’ll have to travel in that direction..  The distance is just as precisely communicated by the waggle-dancer but, now, with the timing of the waggling performance.  The longer the waggle-dancer takes to dance up the straight path from bottom to top, the farther away the honey will be found.

There are many small variations in the waggle dancer’s moves and each one means something.  But the dancer isn’t a commander, but a recruiter.  So, the message in the waggle dance isn’t a command.  The waggler is just “selling” it’s find of honey to the other bees in the hive.  But if this is salesmanship, do the bees in the hive ever “pass” on whatever the waggle- dancer is “pitching?”

Yes, just because a bee waggles doesn’t mean that the other bees must follow.  The first and greatest challenge is competition.  When I first heard this description of what happens in the hive, it reminded me of a row of pitchmen at a circus or fair.  There may be several, or something like a row of, bees each doing its own waggle dance, at the same time.  Each hoping to recruit it’s fellows to the hoard of honey that particular dancer has discovered.

As long as were discussing sales, you might wonder if there’s an art to sales even among bees.  Do some pitches work better than others?  Do some wagglers not just offer the steak, but “sell the sizzle?  (Better: Do some bees not just offer the honey, but sell the sweetness?)  But, even with bees, enthusiasm sells.

The more excited the bee is about the honey source, the more rapidly it will waggle, communicating its excitement about its find to the recruit-able bees in the audience.

Somehow, I can’t help imagining that I’ve seen this excited waggle in other . . . creatures.  When my dog hears the jangle of its leash, he runs back and forth between where I’m standing and the door, excited to be going outside.  I think I’ve seen him definitely waggling.

But back to bees.

There are “Do Bees” and “Don’t Bees.”  Bad behavior isn’t restricted to humans.  Overly enthusiastic waggling bees occasionally get out hand when it comes to sales.  When competing with their fellow wagglers, the dancers will, sometimes, disrupt their competitor’s dance.  Their competitor, in turn, will fight off the disruptor.  I can imagine the whole hive dissolving into the bee version of a barroom brawl.

But what about the potential recruits?  Do they watch dutifully to determine the best source and carefully note the direction and distance to the honey.   Surprising, like children in school, a few do, but most don’t.  Whether day-dreaming or quietly buzzing with their friends about hive gossip, many miss the waggle message completely.

Then, what happens when these inattentive bees are jostled from their distraction by the need to search for honey?  Well, they may lag, just a little, until the swarm forms.  When it takes off to find the next meal, these less informed bees will just follow along behind the swarm to find the honey.

What happens if a bee lags even longer and misses the direction of the departing swarm?  Not to worry.  Some bees just fly out of the hive and look around on their own hoping to catch a lucky break and find some honey by chance.

In spite of the “Don’t Bee” slackers, the waggle dance is important to the survival of hives when honey is hard to find.  When supplies are short, the scouts who come back to the hive to waggle-dance are the chief sources of information about honey location and, often, the only available sources of honey for the hive.  Only in good times can some bees slack off and others go their own way when gathering honey.

After the swarm follows the waggler and gathers a lot of honey, the bees will return to the hive loaded down.  Then, the returning bees pass their honey to receiver bees.  The receivers, in turn, seal the honey in the comb for storage.

But what happens if a swarm comes back loaded with honey to find all the rest of the bees are leaving to gather yet more honey, themselves?  Well, the load-carrying bees have to stop the departing bees from leaving because they are needed as “receivers.”  How do the loaded bees get the message across?  Another dance.  The “tremble dance” is used to recruit receiver bees for unloading and storing the honey brought back to the hive by bees carrying a full load.

And there are more dances.  If a bee gets infested with mites, or just covered with dust, it can do the “grooming dance.”  That dance recruits other bees to help the mite-infested or dusty bee get rid of its mites or clean itself up.