Bees, Language and Operas


May 2012
Ivan Obolensky

Do bees write operas? Do elephants tell epic poems?

One could dismiss either question as absurd. But could they be secretly doing such things, and humans just don’t know it? How can we be sure?

It is difficult enough to understand and experience the world of another human being, let alone another species, but thinking about the answer may offer some insight into bees and elephants and humans, too.

Bees have a brain the size of a sesame seed while elephants have the largest brain of any land animal (eleven pounds). A human brain weighs three pounds. Yet all three of us communicate amongst ourselves and are extremely social, irrespective of brain size.

There are approximately 20,000 species of bees. They descended from vegetarian wasps some 100 million years ago. Most bees and bee species are loners. The exception is the honeybee.

Honeybees have developed a high order of communal living containing some 20,000 to 60,000 individuals depending on the time of year.

In order to live together, honeybees have developed a sophisticated communication system. By a series of dance-like movements, a foraging bee is able to communicate to her sisters how far away a new supply of nectar is located and in what direction.

Bees communicate in several ways. They use scents such as pheromones. They use touch. They jostle. They use dance movements and the familiar buzzing. The longest bee communication takes place when a new queen announces her presence to other potential rivals still in their birth chambers. The new queen’s message contains multiple pulses over a four-second period. The other queens respond with a series of lower-pitched throbs that are longer than the first queen’s and last for some seven seconds. We do not know what is communicated, but the new queen is made aware that she has competition.1

African elephants also have a very rich communication ability that utilizes low-frequency sounds. They can communicate through dense jungle. Researchers have catalogued over seventy kinds of vocal sounds and 160 different visual and tactile signals. Calls are used for many purposes, from reconciling differences to coordinating where a herd is going. There are vocalizations for mating, defense, and for saying hello. There is depth to their communication, including displaying emotions.

Their low-frequency vocalizations are called rumbles and last for approximately two to ten seconds with a large portion in the 1-20 Hz range, which is below the level of human hearing. It is thought that elephants use their feet and their trunks to listen to these vibrations. 2

Human vocalizations typically last longer and can extend for much greater lengths, as in the case with speeches, plays, and epic poetry readings (the Iliad lasts from morning to night over three days).

Yet the typical human, when asked to repeat a string of random numbers, cannot easily recall number strings over seven to eight digits in length. Recalling twelve two-digit numbers far exceeds the capacity of most people.3 How can humans speak and listen effortlessly for periods that are some 1,000 to 10,000 times longer than either bees or elephants? This is an extraordinary difference.

One can ask why bees and elephants do not have longer communications, but a better question might be how come humans do?

Given human short-term recall ability mentioned above, it seems plausible that there should be no communications longer than ten seconds (which coincidentally is toward the maximum length of the communications of bees and elephants).

One possible explanation is that our language structure allows humans to listen and understand what is being said at the same time.* Humans do not need to remember exactly what was said to process the last twenty seconds of communication. Rather comprehension is ongoing and takes place as we listen.

Since understanding is occurring while the message is being spoken, there is theoretically no upper limit to the number of words and phrases that can be strung together.

An example is talking about experience. One narrates a story about an adventure one had. One starts with the first incident, relates what happened next, and what happened after that. The story is a long sequence of incidents that can go on indefinitely for as long as the speaker can speak, and the listener can listen.

One’s attention is in the present, provided one knows the language. If one is not fluent, one gets stuck, wonders what was said, and gets lost.

Language is essentially a pattern that humans recognize. By changing the words and the order, one can change what is being said. The better one knows a particular language, the more attention shifts from how it is being said to what is being said: the message and the meaning.

An analogy would be looking through green sunglasses. After a time one does not notice the color correction as concentration is on what one is looking at.

In the case of bees and elephants we can perhaps understand why there are no bee operas and probably no elephant epic poems because we can observe the average length of their communications.

Secondly, in the case of a swarm of bees debating a hive location amongst several possibilities, the dances to gain consensus do not change particularly. They are the same message repeated with more or less vigor and reinforced by other scouts as they return from the proposed sites. This debate can take place over a several-day period if the choice is a narrow one and a consensus is difficult to build.

Lastly, bees and elephants live in the same physical world that humans do. They must therefore operate within similar limitations of energy and information flow. The amount of data bees and elephants can impart or receive in a ten-second period is roughly the same amount of information as ten seconds of human speech. This assumption is based on the fact that communication requires energy expenditures which must be efficient for lasting survival regardless of species. Nature is ever frugal.

Even if the amount of information imparted is increased by a factor of 100, i.e. bee communications and elephant communications impart 100 times as much information per unit of time as typical human speech, the maximum message length is still only ten seconds. The human equivalent would be nearly seventeen minutes, not long enough for either an opera or an epic.

What sets human language apart is that it is made up of small bits of sound that form syllables. These can be constructed into words that can be strung together into an unlimited sequence many orders of magnitude longer than is observable in either bees or elephants.

It is part of the wonder of language.

There are more than 5,000 known languages spoken by humans on this planet. Each is virtually unintelligible one to the other unless translated, and yet each one, in spite of their differences, is able to express unlimited types of ideas and experiences. Each has its own unique vocabulary, syntax, and structure. None could be considered antiquated, old, or outdated because of its inability to express a concept. Human language can communicate the same thought in over 5,000 different ways. 4

It is a gift.


* See: The Rhythms of Phonemes

1. Seeley, T. D. (2010). Honeybee Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

2. (2007). Crack the Code of the Elephant Communication. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from

3. Tharp, Dr. V. (2005). How to Control Stress. Peak Performance Course, Vol. 2. Cary, NC: Van Tharp Institute.

4. Vajda, E. (n.d.). Animal Systems of Communication. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from

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© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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