Waggle to the Sun
In my essay on Paleolithic cave art, I expressed astonishment at how long ago people like ourselves first appeared in the world. All around the world, there are caves with drawings that are tens of thousands of years old, and these drawings are compelling evidence that the people who drew them had the same sense of self that we do today.
I was thinking that this cave art may have been the earliest appearance of symbolic communication, where knowledge is abstracted and fixed in a manner that other‘s’ can learn from. But I thought this only because I had forgotten something I had once learned as a child: That honeybees communicate the position of food to each other — by dancing.
There is a simple waggle dance that bees do when they return inside their dark nest. They orient their dance around gravity, and the direction they move in as they “waggle” (shimmy quickly from side to side) shows other bees where food can be found. Bees that observe the dance of the returning bee “understand” that the angle of the waggle dance against the pull of gravity represents the angle relative to the sun where food can be found. Other aspects of the dance convey how far the bees should fly along that angle.
It’s quite remarkable, and quite old — some zoologists think that bee dancing is 10 to 20 million years old. The dance has been adapted to changing conditions: some species dance on the outside of their hives, and since the sun is directly visible, they don’t need to use gravity as a token for the sun’s position on the horizon. Like most communication, it doesn’t blindly control behavior. Many bees will, even after observing the dance of their hive mates, willfully continue to harvest from the food sources they know well. This confusion, the fact that the dance only triggers some bees to change where they look for nectar, actually reflects a nuanced survival strategy, since unanimity can easily cause whole societies to perish from a single mistake.
As humans, we live off the fruits of a trillion bee dances, because many of the plants we eat are pollinated during the travels of bees. Bees dance unaware of what they do — they fly about in the bright midday sun, and the discovery and enjoyment of food fixes in them a remembrance of where they are, to supplement their knowledge of where the hive is.
“Knowledge” hardly expresses what they experience, because there’s no evidence that such simple creatures have any awareness of what they do, even though the dance uses Trigonometry. The Golden Ratio spirals in plants and in the bodies of sea creatures show that nature doesn’t require consciousness to embody a mathematical pattern. A monkey that heaves itself from one branch to another doesn’t need to know math to depend on their bodies ability to instantly calculate how much tension each muscle should release to arrive within reach of the other branch. And math is what the bees do when they arrive back into the dark hive. Their bodies know where the food is, and where the sun was on the horizon where they found it. All their bodies need to do is transpose the axis of the sun’s position to the plumb of gravity, and then dance.
Bees show the power, and the glory, of action without knowing. They know neither in the noonday sunlight or the dark inner combs of their hives. Their life is about doing, not knowing. The entire hive — tens of thousands of bees, “finds” a new nest site because individual bees search, and dance, and check the candidate sites other bees danced about, and dance once again, until they all, each and every one of them, move to the consensus best site. It’s one instance of unanimity, that swarm, betting all they are on a waggle dance.
We know, in the ways that bees cannot. We’re aware of our plans, and when we communicate, we know what we’re saying. We live much of our lives in the spaces between what we want to say, or show, and the receptiveness of the people around us. Much of our happiness depends on whether we feel people listen to us; much of our sense of security depends on our confidence in the people we listen to.
When I think of bees, I consider the power of not knowing, of the dances we make in the dark unseen places that exist between us. There’s so much we see that we never speak of, and there is so much we feel that we can’t explain, even to ourselves. We’re like bees that find fresh food, never realizing that we were spurred to this place by some dance, never knowing how improbable it was to find ourselves, after a long, exhausting journey, amidst these flowers.
I think our entire culture is a series of noisy, competing dances, because the talking, the shouting, the movements are what we like to do, just as the bees hum loudly as they swarm around each other. All the awareness we have, all the warnings and entreaties we give each other, all the subtle, exquisite art we make to communicate the beauty we’ve found, likely serves a completely different end than we think. We know we do art and science because we want to direct our fellows to the beauty that we’ve discovered as individuals. We know this just as the bees waggle with pleasure as they resonate with the direction of their last meal.
Far in the future, we’ll look back on today’s Babel, and we’ll see ourselves as bees that unknowingly discerned, amidst all the noisy stories, a chord that plumbed a way forward.
Every dance is an act of faith.