Bees do it: bilingual bees teach humans a lesson

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Sun Jun 8 06:00:18 UTC 2008

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Bees do it: bilingual bees teach humans a lesson

Researchers mixing Asian and European honeybees have shown that the  
bees can learn one another’s language to cooperate in finding food and  
bringing it back to the hive.  In fact, according to the Telegraph,  
honeybees can pick up the new lingo even faster than humans.  Some  
think there’s a lesson in this for people as well as bees: if we could  
learn to speak each other’s languages like the bees do, perhaps we’d  
get along better, too.

Scientists have known for a long time that honeybees communicate by  
wagging their bodies from side to side and moving at an angle to the  
sun, then looping back to do it all over again.  Nobel-prize winning  
zoologist Karl von Frisch first described the “waggle dance” that  
scout bees use to show other bees the distance and direction of a food  
source, which may be as far as 600 meters from the hive. The world’s  
nine different honeybee species use slightly different waggles –  
analogous to different dialects among humans.

Now a team of Chinese, German and Australian scientists who introduced  
two geographically distant honeybee species and their different  
dialects into the same hive has shown that after interacting for a  
while, the bees are able to bridge the language barrier as they go  
about the communal task of gathering food.

While entomologists – scientists who study the insect world – see this  
as a breakthrough in the study of animal communication, etymologists –  
scholars who study word derivations – have been more reserved in their  
reactions.  “This is not the Rosetta comb by any means,” sniffed the  
linguist Noam Chomsky.  “Maybe bees can dance – and that’s a big  
maybe," Chomsky added, "because Nureyev they are not – but only people  
can talk.”

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Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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