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Bee Grammar

07 Sep 2020
Bee 515023 1920

We generally understand grammar to be the body of rules and principles for speaking or writing language. If we broaden that definition to mean a set of rules to make signs understandable, a whole new horizon opens up.

Those signs don’t have to be words and their sense doesn’t have to be organised by sentences, but simply to convey meaning. Allow me, then, to introduce bee grammar.

We all know that bees do a waggle dance to explain things to one another, like finding a good stash of nectar. But until recently we hadn’t discovered the sophistication of this communication.

When the food is close, the bee that finds it moves in a circle. If it’s further, as her audience watches she first moves in a circle on the vertical comb, then traces a straight line waggling her rear end.

The distance to food is indicated by the speed with which she shakes and the time it takes for her to begin the second circle to form a dumbell-shape. If transposed horizontally, the resulting image is aligned with the route to the food in relation to the sun. The amount of nectar is indicated by the speed of the dance – faster meaning more.

Before starting the dance, she gives her sisters a taste and smell of the goodies while, during the dance, she makes a variety of buzzing sounds that must imply meaning but we don’t yet know what it is.

Bees also have conferences about accommodation. This is how it works: certain bees scout out possible nest locations and each creates a dance out of the best they’ve fond. Then they get together and dance the information. By rules we can’t figure out it’s an elimination competition and the bee with the best all-round information gets the vote.

The amazing thing is that they provide graphic representations on vertical combs that convey complex information about a horizontal world. In other words they’re able to convey abstract information by using signs. As far as we knw, humans are the only other creatures who’ve managed that.

Where we use words to make meaning, bees use movement, sound, smell, visual signs and taste converted to information by way of the syntactical order in which it’s presented. The message is conveyed by relationship between the various signs. In other words, bee grammar.

About the Author


Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist and photographer who, some time back, realised he knew little about the natural world. So he set out to discover it. This took him to five continents – including Antarctica – and resulted in five books on natural history and hundreds of articles. The Last Elephants, published this year with Colin Bell, is his 18th book.

His other books include:

Gang Town, which won the City Press Tafelberg Non-Fiction award,
Writing Left, a biography of the journalist Ruth First.
Voices of liberation
The Brotherhoods,
Gangs, Rituals & Rites of passage
Rainmaker, a novel shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
Natural Selections,
African Journeys,
Just add dust,
Loveletters to Africa,
Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica,
The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers.
Wild as it Gets,

He has degrees in criminology, political science and African history and is a former editor of Getaway travel magazine.

He was one of the primary drafters of the White Paper that became the Child Justice Act, a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy for high-risk youths, a board member of Wilderness Foundation Africa, a member of the Conservation Action Trust and was the facilitator of the Western Cape Government’s gang strategy roadmap.

His day job is as environmental investigative journalist.