Can Bees Smell?


Hearing—Sir John Lubbock’s Experiments—Sounds uttered by Queen—Effects produced by them—Smell-Organs—Purposes—Liking for, and Antipathy to, certain Effluvia—Discovery by Bees of Nectar and Honey

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With regard to the sense of hearing, Sir John Lubbock says: “The result of my experiments on the hearing of bees has surprised me very much. It is generally considered that, to a certain extent, the emotions of bees are expressed by the sounds they make, which seems to imply that they possess the power of hearing.

I do not by any means intend to deny that this is the case. Nevertheless, I never found them take any notice of any noise which I made, even when it was close to them. I tried one of my bees with a violin.

I made all the noise I could, but, to my surprise, she took no notice. I could not even see a twitch of the antennæ. The next day I tried the same with another bee, but could not see the slightest sign that she was conscious of the noise. On August 31st I repeated the experiment with another bee, with the same result.

On September 12th and 13th I tried several bees with a dog-whistle and a shrill pipe, but they took no notice whatever; nor did a set of tuning-forks, which I tried on a subsequent day, have any more effect.

These tuning-forks extended over three octaves, beginning with A below the ledger-line. I also tried with my voice, shouting, &c., close to the head of a bee; but, in spite of my utmost efforts, the bees took no notice. I repeated these experiments at night, when the bees were quiet; but no noise that I could make seemed to disturb them in the least. In this respect the results of my observations on bees entirely agreed with those on ants.”

These experiments do not appear by any means conclusive. It may well be that sounds which are merely loud or shrill would pass unnoticed by the insects, as conveying no meaning to them. In like manner, a clap of thunder, the firing of a cannon or gun, the playing of a brass band, will produce no manifest effect upon them; but, if the queen utters, as she sometimes does, a peculiar sound, an instantaneous and very remarkable recognition of it takes place.

The sound referred to is usually heard at the time when the young princesses are ready to emerge from the cells in which they have been developed. When thus emitted by the young queens, no attention appears to be paid to it by the workers, who, however, restrain the mother-queen from destroying her royal daughters.

But, when these are released from their natal captivity, and the queen, standing with her thorax against a comb, makes, with her wings crossed over her back and in rapid vibration, a certain sound, it receives immediate attention.

Huber tells us that bees which had been plucking at, biting, and chasing the queen, hung down their heads when this peculiar noise was uttered, and remained altogether motionless; and whenever she had recourse to this assertion of authority, the same effects followed.

Again, unless observers are fanciful in their interpretation of the sounds to be heard at various times in a hive, we must conclude that certain feelings, such as those of anger, grief, consternation, satisfaction, joy, &c., are expressed in distinct tones. If this is the case, we can only conclude that, difficult as it may be to localise the organ of hearing, such an organ must exist.

Nor, in all probability, shall we be mistaken in assigning its position to the antennæ; for recent investigations into the anatomy of these organs in ants,[3] lend much support to the theory that an auditory apparatus is situated in them.

[3]Vide p. 227 of Ants, Bees, and Wasps, by Sir John Lubbock.

Taste.—Next as to taste. We have already spoken of the close connection between this sense and the preceding; but, whatever doubt may be entertained as to the possession of the former, there can be none as to the latter. Huber, indeed, from the fact that bees are often seen lapping stable-liquid and sewage, thought the sense of taste could exist in them to only a very small degree.

It must be remembered, however, that, like many other creatures, they are fond of certain salts, and to this, no doubt, may be ascribed their visits to the above-mentioned liquids. On a priori grounds we should conclude that the possession of this faculty was most important, for the detection of nectar suitable and unsuitable for the purposes of the hive.

Moreover, we find a marked preference shown for flowers which produce the best honey; and the eagerness with which they will lap up any thoroughly sweet liquid confirms the idea that they taste very readily.

Smell. Probably of all the senses of bees none is so acute as that of the perception of odours. Not only do they distinguish the citizens of their own hive from those of other communities; not only do they discriminate between the fragrance of various flowers; not only can they detect the aroma of honey concealed from their sight, though not from their olfactory nerves, but they show a marked antipathy to certain human individuals, which can only be accounted for by supposing that from these persons proceeds an effluvium disagreeable to the bees, though not perceptible by, or unpleasant to, man.

A remarkable anecdote in confirmation of this well-known fact is given by Bevan, on the authority of M. de Hofer, Councillor of State to the Grand Duke of Baden. This gentleman’s father had for years kept bees, and had devoted much personal attention to them.

He had, indeed, attained such familiarity with them, and such skill in their manipulation, that he could, without fear of being stung, search for and find the queen, and take her in his fingers. Unfortunately, he fell ill with a severe fever, which kept him for a long time a prisoner to his house.

After his convalescence he visited his bees, returning to them with his old confidence and pleasure. Greatly to his surprise and dismay, he found their feelings towards him entirely changed.

They would no longer allow him to approach the hives, much less to perform any of his former manipulations; and that this was not the effect of a change of the population, through the natural perishing of the workers, but was due to some alteration in him, was shown by the fact that he was never again able to resume his old familiarity with his favourites.

Some change in his blood, brought about by the fever, made the emanations from his skin permanently offensive to the bees, though no such difference was perceptible to any of his human friends.

M. Feburier and other observers assert that a certain antipathy is manifested towards persons with red or black hair. We have reason to doubt the correctness of their opinion as to the latter class, and we more strongly incline to think that fair-complexioned people are less agreeable to bees than those who are darker.

As a corroboration of this, we may mention the case of two brothers, one of whom could always approach the hives with impunity, while the other could not come near them without danger of being stung. Though both of them were dark, the obnoxious one was decidedly the fairer.

A further evidence of their sense of smell is the anger they manifest on the crushing of one of their number. Like the terror inspired into an ox by the smell of freshly-drawn blood in the slaughter-house, is the odour of a bruised comrade to bees. Again, the smell of the liquid from one of their poison bags excites them strongly.

A wound just made by a sting rouses others to inflict more wounds; and, if the fluid be presented to them at the entrance of their homes, it at once stirs their fury. If, however, it be allowed to crystallise, and thus to become incapable of emitting any odour, it will be quite disregarded by the bees.

Sir John Lubbock tried various experiments with eau-de-Cologne and rose-water, and found that, till the insects had become habituated by frequent use to these liquids, they always came out to the entrance, to ascertain the meaning of the odours which had penetrated into the hives.

It is well known, also, that they dislike the smell of paint so much, that it is not advisable to place a swarm in a freshly painted box, lest they should forsake it, from its unpleasant odour.

We may well conclude that it is owing to the keenness of this sense that they perceive the presence of flowers containing nectar; and, guided by it, they wing their flight to distant fields where the white clover attracts them, or to more barren districts where the heath promises them abundant pasturage.

It is very certain that the fragrant aroma of honey is at once perceived by them at many feet from their dwellings; and in taking their sweets from them it is, for this reason, necessary to avoid all exposure of broken combs, or the dripping of their contents. Great trouble is, in fact, often occasioned by the readiness with which they thus detect the presence of their own produce.

Within our personal knowledge, at a provincial show of bees, hives, and honey, the fragrance of the liquid attracted bees from the neighbourhood in such immense numbers that they carried off, during one afternoon, some seventy pounds of honey from the tent in which it was being exhibited.

The position of the organ of smell is not clearly ascertained. By some, as we have said, the antennæ have been credited with the power; but, though many observations may seem to favour this opinion, we must remember that we have on record some striking facts, which would seem, at least, to show that powerful odours are able to be recognised by other portions of the body.

Lehmann and Cuvier came to the conclusion that the spiracles, connected with the respiration of bees, are the means by which the sense of smell is exercised.

The idea was based on the notion that odours can only be perceived by the inhalation of air. This, of course, is not a sufficient ground for the inference arrived at. Kirby and Spence, again, inclined, as we have already mentioned, to the belief that the organ of smell lay in or near the mouth.

This supposition was partly founded on the close relation between taste and smell. Huber’s experiments lent some confirmation to this theory.

He presented a camel’s-hair brush with a little oil of turpentine on its tip to every part successively of the abdomen, trunk, and head, without producing any discomfort to the bee. He then tried the eyes and antennæ, without any apparent effect; but, as soon as he directed it a little above the insertion of the proboscis and close to the mouth, immediate signs of annoyance showed themselves.

This experiment, repeated with other strongly-smelling liquids, gave similar results; but, when the mouths of the insects experimented upon were stopped with paste, the perception of odours appeared no longer to exist.

For the present, then, the matter remains in doubt; but we may suggest to our readers that observations on this point, carefully and patiently conducted, may lead to much useful information being obtained.

It is impossible to pass from an examination and description of the head-apparatus of the bee, without being struck with the marvellous beauty, and equally wonderful adaptation, of each of its parts to the varied functions required of them.

Whether observed by the unassisted eye, or by a lens of low or high power, we cannot fail to see how exquisitely each minutest portion is fashioned; how remarkably the various organs are protected according to their delicacy; how supplied with nerve-fibre in proportion to the sensitiveness required in them; how supplementary one to another in their diverse duties; how harmonious in their working; and how fitted as a whole to the wants and the instincts of the insects to which they belong.

Nor, as it seems to us, is it possible to believe that any force of evolution, unguided by a distinctly controlling and Divine creative power, could ever have elaborated organs so precisely what might have been expected to result from the exercise of infinite wisdom and manifest purpose.

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