By Michael Mobbs

30 May 2012 – Today’s question is, how do bees communicate?

Let’s look at the introduced ones used to make commercial honey.

Exotic bees  – Apis mellifera  – that make commercial honey have been closely studied. This is driven partly by the desire to profit more from their industry.

One researcher, Karl von Frisch, discovered how these bees communicate by building a hive with a clear wall through which he could observe them. (And you thought Burr was obsessive.)

Von Frisch found that bees, for example, tell each other about the direction to take by a dance where:

  • The bee runs briefly in a straight line inside the honeycomb, wagging its abdomen and tail, turns left and runs back to the starting point.
  • Then the bee runs again along that line and turns right and returns to its starting point.
  • The direction of the run is the direction to the source of the pollen.
  • The distance is communicated by the number of runs a bee makes.
  • The direction of the run within the hive changes during the day as the sun’s position in the sky changes. That’s because the direction the bee gives refers to the angle of the sun in the sky and that angle changes during the day.

As bees follow the directions, or find different pollen in other locations, the direction the bees run also changes.

Von Frisch observed how the bee tail wagging runs changed direction during the day, but neither the hive, nor the pollen location changed.  (1)

That’s all very well.  But my bees are Australian stingless bees. How do they communicate?

I don’t know.

How little I know.

I enjoy that, you know, discovering things about Earth.

Not so with some folks in Canberra.  It’s funny how little they know.

To gauge the level of empty-headedness in the senior levels of government advisors lets look beyond bees to food.

Let’s compare two recent government studies, one published in the UK in May 2012, the other in Australia in 2011.  It’s interesting to compare how differently these two government reports see the future of food:

The UK report was reported on the net last week thus:

“Major changes are needed in agriculture and food consumption around the world if future generations are to be adequately fed, a major report warns.
Farming must intensify sustainably, cut waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farms,” it says.

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change spent more than a year assessing evidence from scientists and policymakers.

Its final report was released at the Planet Under Pressure conference. The commission was chaired by Prof Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser.

“If you’re going to generate enough food both to address the poverty of a billion people not getting enough food, with another billion [in the global population] in 13 years’ time, you’ve got to massively increase agriculture,” Sir John told BBC News.

“You can’t do it using the same agricultural techniques we’ve used before, because that would seriously increase greenhouse gas emissions for the whole world, with climate change knock-ons.”

Farming is probably responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, although the figure is hard to pin down as a large proportion comes from land clearance, for which emissions are notoriously difficult to measure.

Although there are regional variations, climate change is forecast to reduce crop yields overall – dramatically so in the case of South Asia, where studies suggest the wheat yield could halve in 50 years.”

Hold those thoughts.

The Australian report reads thus:

“. . . Australia has a relatively high level of overall food security due to the abundance of its trade surplus in food and the reliability of sources of food imports in the categories that rely on overseas supply.

“In several sectors where there is relatively low trade in food due to commercial or technical restrictions on trade, Australian production systems are resilient, with adequate capacity to meet rising consumer demand. This is relevant for poultry, and fresh horticulture and dairy products.

“Food imports within the categories of meat, horticulture and seafood does not in itself pose a threat to food security. Where imports are critical to meet demand by Australian consumers, food is sourced from a range of country suppliers with whom favourable and stable trading relations exist. “

– An analysis of the Australian food supply chain, 2011

In the Australian report there is no mention of these challenges: “peak oil”, “oil”, “petroleum” “food miles”, “climate change” or the geopolitical issues arising from “the poverty of a billion people not getting enough food, with another billion [in the global population] in 13 years’ time.”

No wonder I’m curious about native stingless bees. They help increase the productivity of the food I grow where I live and work. The Australian government thinks it needn’t be interested in food. How little they know, too.

(1)  Bees: Their vision, chemical senses, and language, Karl Von Frisch, 1950

Michael Mobbs’ book, Sustainable House, is the best selling account of how to build a sustainable project, what works and doesn’t. The book shows how Sustainable House has recycled more than 1.5 million litres of sewage in a five square metre garden in Sydney’s inner city Chippendale since 1996, uses rainwater for drinking, solar power for energy and provides accommodation for four people for utility costs of less than $300 a year. See also www.sustainablehouse.com.au