Monday, November 30, 2009

LIFE IN KAROO COUNTRY… or, “I am the Lord of the Dance, said he”

- Elizabeth Storey-Lawson -

SAFM has a new program that really caught my interest last month. The general public is invited to call in and consult on air with a practicing psychologist who dispenses gentle counsel and practical homilies for dealing with common relationship problems. Time and again, this kindly doctor stressed the critical importance of “communication” between parties.

It set me thinking about all the ways in which we, and virtually an endless list of creatures, communicate and exactly what qualifies as “language”. Hubristic humans once coined the expression “dumb animals” in the misguided impression that without speech all other organisms had extremely limited means of communicating, either with each other or with the world at large.

We are all familiar with obvious transfers of information in the wild: who has not heard birds trilling their distinct species songs or noticed the brightening of their bodies with mating plumage. Carnivores spoor mark territorial prerogative; impalas snort-signal predator perceptions; and humpback whales chant pod locales. (As a small aside, my tiny island of Bermuda was the site of the very first under-sea sonar recording of these extraordinarily complex and lyrical whale songs.) With some degree of humility, man readily admits the paucity of his five senses as compared to the eyesight of a soaring eagle, the hearing of a hunting bat, or the narrow range of his ability to differentiate smells. We have about 3,000 scent receptor cells in our noses; a beagle hound has 30,000!

In my father’s library I once found a wonderfully interesting book entitled “Non-Verbal Communication” which dealt with the history and development of signage. Throughout history and valid in almost all human languages and cultures, certain shapes and colours have had a universal communicative character. An arrow for direction, a triangle for attention and the ubiquitous red for danger. But what is true for and used by man is also prevalent in entomology. Prince Albert’s own expert ornithologist, Dr. Richard Dean, recently described to me the effectiveness of brilliant red markings on insects which so clearly convey their toxicity to hungry birds hoping for a quick lunch.

But think of the amazing communication between Acacia Karoo trees when any one of them begins to be under threat from over-browsing. It releases into the air a signal to all neighbouring stands to increase tannin production in their leaves thereby heightening unpalatability. This communication method is so effective that in some geographically restrictive game parks kudu who continued to feed off the trees actually developed renal failure!

Of course, in my musings about how to silently and accurately share information, I came to wonder at our own most precious creatures – apis capensis – the Karoo honey bee. We are so often queried on how to tell the floral source of our honey varieties and I am afraid I must apologize for the length and complexity of the explanations given! Ultimately, one needs to understand the choice is theirs; we can only place the colonies in the vicinity of our desired nectar flow and watch where they decide to gather food.

Every colony sends out a small number of “scouts”, often a dozen or so, to reconnoitre a potential arena, up to 3km from the hive, for the gathering of pollen (their source of protein) and nectar (carbohydrates). Each scout returns to the colony with samples to be tasted and evaluated by the principal group of “workers” – all females, by the way, in the classic division of honey bee labours. Before I am accused of gender bias, “bringing home the bacon” simply does not apply to bee behaviour. Male honey bees – drones - do not perform any domestic chores within the hive nor provide any food for the colony.

Now the utterly amazing and unique process of communication begins! Each scout will perform either a round dance conveying precise information on the quality and quantity of available pollen or a waggle dance describing similar details of the potential nectar flow. In addition, these dances portray the exact direction and distances to the food sources. Remember – this is all done in the dark! In my humble opinion, and not to take too much objection to the author’s intent of this most beautiful song, the “Lord of the Dance” is truly a Lady.

No comments: