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Alumni Newsletter: Spring '98

Do honeybees know Quantum Mechanics better than people do?

When a honeybee finds a source of food, it returns to the hive dancing with "joy." Actually, the dance of the honeybees has a serious purpose. It tells other bees the direction and distance to the food supply. It is a remarkable dance relating the angle of the direction to the food supply with the position of the sun. There is a "round dance" for nearby food and a "waggle dance" for more distant food. These dances constitute a real language. You can make a little robot bee, program it to dance, and the real bees will understand it and fly off in the right direction to get the food. Wow!

Ever since the biologist Karl von Frisch discovered the dance of the honey bees in the 1920's, biologists have wondered how the honey bee with its little brain could "talk" in such an "intelligent" way. Professor Barbara Shipman of the Math Department has proposed a new and very controversial explanation.

Barbara's father does research on the physics of honeybee bahavior and is employed by the Department of Agriculture. When she was nine years old, he told her about the dance of the honeybees. But Barbara was also interested in mathematics, and she went on to get her Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Arizona. Her thesis was on the dynamics and geometry of spaces called flag manifolds. It would seem that she had drifted very far away from the dance of the honeybees. But, after coming here to the University of Rochester, she saw something that she did not expect. In the geometry of a six dimensional flag manifold, she saw the dance of the honeybees. To be more specific, she saw a family of curves, some of which traced the round dance and some of which traced the waggle dance. Without looking for it, she had stumbled upon a mathematical model for the dance of the honeybees! The model even predicted that the dance would come in two forms, waggle and round. Wow!

But why should a six dimensional flag manifold have anything to do with honeybees? Surely, their little brains do not think in six dimensions. What could be going on? Up to this point, Barbara was on safe ground. Nobody could argue that her model did not match the dance. It clearly did. Just look at the curves in the manifold and watch the bees. It was the same thing.

But Barbara wanted to understand why the model worked, and to do so, she proposed a daring explanation. Physicists use these same flag manifolds to understand some of the phenomena associated to quarks, fundamental particles two of which are the building blocks of ordinary matter. Barbara believes that this is not an accident. She proposes that bees have a "sixth sense" that gives them direct access to the quantum world of subatomic particles. Wow!

Experiments have shown that the dance of honeybees is sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field. One possible explanation of this is the presence of a magnetic substance in the bodies of bees. Further experiments indicate quantum effects in the reaction of bees to magnetic fields and prompt Barbara to go even further. She says, "Ultimately magnetism is described by quantum fields. I think the physics of bees' bodies, their physiology, must be constructed such that they are sensitive to quantum fields, that is, the bee perceives these fields through quantum mechanical interactions between the fields and the atoms in the membranes of certain cells."

Barbara's hypothesis that honeybees have direct access to the quantum world would be revolutionary in both biology and physics. It would violate a sacred principle in quantum mechanics, that the process of measurement changes the very phenomenon that you are measuring. According to flag manifold geometry, a dancing honeybee is interacting with the quantum world without disturbing it and using this information to organize its dance. Is it possible that honeybees have found a way to do this? Needless to say, Barbara has a long way to go before she has convincing evidence that honeybees have this strange ability.

You can read more about Barbara's work in the November 1997 issue of Discover magazine. In it you will find an article called Quantum Honeybees written by Professor Adam Frank of our Physics Department. It is a very informative and readable account of Barbara's work. You might even be lucky enough to catch an interview with Barbara herself on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. In her own paper on this work, A mathematical foundation for the dance language of the honeybee, Barbara has had a rare privilege. Among the papers that she cites, there is one by her father, Investigating bee behavior from the standpoint of fundamental physical principles.

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