The Clock of the Bees
ABOUT sixty-five years ago Swiss physiologist Auguste Forel was breakfasting with his family on his garden terrace. Some bees discovered the honey and marmalade on their table. Each morning afterward the bees came to nibble at these at the same hour and in increasing numbers. Breakfast on the terrace finally became impossible and the family moved indoors.
The next morning Forel looked out the window and was surprised to see that the bees had returned to the terrace table at the usual time. But nothing was on the table to attract them! Forel then conducted some experiments that confirmed the fact that “the bees remembered the hours at which they had usually found sweets.”
Later, another scientist observed that bees worked on fields of buckwheat in the morning hours during which the buckwheat flowers secreted nectar. But the bees did not visit the fields in the afternoon. Yet the next morning they returned at the same time. Obviously, the bees learned the time when these blossoms were secreting nectar and came when the pickings were good. The scientist called this remarkable ability of the bees “time sense.”
Research workers have worked since 1929 at trying to learn how the busy bee is able to measure time. In the 1950’s the Zoological Institute of Munich in Germany established by an experiment that bees tell time by an internal clock that is governed by their own organism.
Under conditions of constant light and temperature bees were trained in Paris, France, to find sugar water in a dish at about 8:15 p.m. Then one night, after feeding, the bees were flown to New York city and housed under the same conditions. Because of the five-hour time difference, when it is 8:15 p.m. in Paris it is 3:15 p.m. in New York. So, would the bees come out to feed at 8:15 p.m. New York time? If they did, it would indicate that the bees have a sense of time determined by something outside their bodies. Or would the bees come out to feed at 3:15 p.m. New York time? If so, it would be strong evidence that the bees have an internal clock that maintains a twenty-four-hour rhythm and that operates independently of the environment. The bees came out to feed at about 3:15 p.m. Bees indeed have an internal clock.
Another experiment was conducted later, but this time in a natural environment. The results demonstrated that the timekeeping of the bees is also influenced by the change from night to day, which varies during the year.
Does their clock serve some purpose? Natural History magazine answers: “Even if some plants, such as buckwheat, secrete nectar only in the morning, there are certainly others that secrete nectar during the noon hour or in the afternoon. True: bees could certainly collect nectar without their time sense. But with it, their daily activities become easier and more rational and, as we know, everything in the bee colony is organized rationally.
“The collector bees, which have been exploiting one source of nectar for hours, do not at once desert it when it becomes temporarily exhausted. They make good use of the rest period and retire to a quiet corner of the hive. . . . Only when the hour approaches at which ‘their’ flowers secrete nectar, do they resume their collecting. It would be a waste of honey and energy if they had to fly out for reconnaissance every twenty minutes or so to ensure their arrival at the very time the source would flow again.
“Even so, the bees’ time sense might still be dispensed with, were it not that the sense is absolutely necessary for the bees’ orientation in space—for which they use the sun as a compass. The solar compass . . . can function only if the time of day is taken into consideration. And, finally, when the collector bee returns to the hive from a nectar reconnaissance, the direction and the distance of the source is communicated to other workers by means of a dance. For the correct execution and comprehension of this dance, a time sense that works exactly is also an absolute requirement.”
The lowly bee’s ability to measure time is, of course, governed by instinct. And this ability bears witness that it was designed by an intelligent creator and did not come into existence by some blind force such as evolution. The Bible proclaims that Jehovah God is the Creator of all things and that he is doing “wonderful things without number.” Surely, the clock of the bees is among these.—Job 9:10.