Recently my wife was telling me about a great book by Amulya Malladi titled ‘The sound of language’. I am yet to read it myself, but it is supposedly great reading and about an Afghani lady Raihana in Denmark for whom the Danish language itself sounded like the buzzing of many bees. Gunnar whose wife passed away needs somebody to look after the bees she left behind. Raihana takes up the challenge. But well, this is not a book review, but have any of you wondered how bees communicate?

The domestic honeybee, a colonial insect, lives in a hive that contains a queen, a few male drones, and thousands of worker bees. The survival, success, and future of the colony is dependent upon continuous communication of vital information between every member of the colony. The technique that honey bees use to communicate new-found food sources to other members of the colony is referred to as the ZigBee Principle. Using this silent, but powerful communication system, whereby the bee dances in a zig-zag or waggle pattern, she is able to share information such as the location, distance, and direction of a newly discovered food source to her fellow colony members.

And let me assure you – it is a well thought out and scientific approach where time, distances and direction comes into picture.

Wikipedia explains - A waggle dance consists of one to 100 or more circuits, each of which consists of two phases: the waggle phase and the return phase. To examine how bees communicate using waggle dances, let us follow the behavior of a bee upon her return from a rich, new food source. Excited by her discovery, she scrambles into her hive's entrance and immediately crawls onto one of the vertical combs. Here, amidst a massed throng of her sisters, she performs her dance. This involves running through a small figure-eight pattern: a waggle run (aka waggle phase) followed by a turn to the right to circle back to the starting point (aka return phase), another waggle run, followed by a turn and circle to the left, and so on in a regular alternation between right and left turns after waggle runs. The waggle phase of the dance is the most striking and informative part of the signaling bee's performance.

The direction and duration of waggle runs are closely correlated with the direction and distance of the patch of flowers being advertised by the dancing bee. Flowers located directly in line with the sun are represented by waggle runs in an upward direction on the vertical combs, and any angle to the right or left of the sun is coded by a corresponding angle to the right or left of the upward direction. The distance between hive and recruitment target is encoded in the duration of the waggle runs. The farther the target, the longer the waggle phase, with a rate of increase of about 75 milliseconds per 100 meters.

Amazingly, waggle dancing bees that have been in the hive for an extended time, adjust the angles of their dances to accommodate the changing direction of the sun. Therefore bees that follow the waggle run of the dance are still correctly led to the food source even though its angle relative to the sun has changed.

This is a subject that has intrigued researchers since Aristotle’s days in 330BC. Amongst the most famous recent researchers is German Karl Von Frisch who observed and studied the waggle dance for over a decade and was awarded a Nobel Prize for his discoveries in 1973. Contesting this theory is AM Wenner from University of California who came up with an odor plume theory. It appears that the real answer could lie between the two theories or a combination of both.

The reasons for Wenner’s objections were the following - Bees certainly dance, but there is typically a time lag between performance of the dance and other bees' arrival at the food source. The time lag led scientists to suggest that the bees were actually finding the food on their own, possibly by following a scent or the original bee when it returned to the food source. The controversy was created by von Frisch himself when he said that recruits read the dance and flew directly to the food source.

But now a team at
Rothamsted Research, an agricultural research center, has tracked bees by radar as they flew to a food source. The team's results show that bees do read the dance and fly off immediately in the direction indicated. In addition, the bees correct for wind drift by looking at the ground and the angle of the sun and correcting any lateral shift. "The mean error is about 5 to 6 meters." Once the bees get to the end of the flight, they change their flight pattern and start circling, looking for the food they've been instructed to find. That takes time, Riley said, and bees can loop back and forth for up to 20 minutes

To track bees by radar, the researchers first had to create a transponder small and light enough that a bee could carry it. It took approximately two years, Riley said, to come up with a system that worked efficiently and was small enough for the insect to carry. It had to be omni directional, and robust enough to survive being attached to the insect and to stay on during grooming. The final version weighs approximately 10 to 12 milligrams, a fraction of the pollen load bees are accustomed to carrying.

But questions remain, said Seeley. "We don't know yet how a bee standing next to a dancer in the darkness of a beehive is able to get all this information from the dancer," he said. "And we also don't know how it evolved." The work was
published May 12 in ‘Nature’.

Wenner does not agree - Wenner, the professor emeritus of biology and natural history at UC Santa Barbara, insisted in a telephone interview Wednesday that every experiment so far had been designed simply to confirm the original von Frisch hypothesis - not really to test it. The new research is more of the same, he said. As for Riley's radar experiment, Wenner insisted that capturing the bees and planting the tiny devices on them would send all the bees flying in panic in whatever direction the returning bee had come from. "Any experienced beekeeper knows that if you put a transponder on a bee, it will cause a 'flight' response, and all the other bees around it will fly in the same direction," he said. "This research has all sorts of problems with it because they're trying to prove something they think is true -- but scientists are suckers for the exotic, and this controversy will go on and on for decades."

Remember the usage - He made a beeline for the girl, bar, buffet, food etc – derived from the straight lines that bees fly to reach an intended food destination. "There is no disagreement among scientists that returning foragers dance in the hive. Everyone also agrees that once a forager locates a good food source, she will be able to fly directly to and from that flower patch. That is, she flies a straight line (a bee-line) to the food patch from the hive using local landmarks and the sun for orientation."

The waggle dance was termed ‘Zigbee’ by marketing whiz kids and is the term used for a new definition of communication for wireless networks, which could become very popular soon. Here are details for the technically oriented reader.

A wireless network used for home, building and industrial control. It conforms to the IEEE 802.15.4 wireless standard for low data rate networks. With a maximum speed of 250 Kbps at 2.4 GHz, ZigBee is slower than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but is designed for low power so that batteries can last for months and years. The typical ZigBee transmission range is roughly 50 meters, but that can vary greatly depending on temperature, humidity and air quality. A ZigBee mesh provides multiple pathways from device to device (like the Internet) and eliminates a single point of failure. If nodes go down or are removed, ZigBee devices can "zig" and "zag" through the network to their destination like a bumblebee.

Well I can tell you that this wireless ‘zibee’ is definitely buzzing

Other references
A Telegraph article
Wikipedia –
Waggle dance
Zigbee definition
A complete paper on
waggle dance
Watch this
you tube video to see a real dance with results explained
NCSU animated
blog on Honeybees

Connolly’s Teak & Canal

Lt Henry Valentine Connolly was the Malabar Collector roughly between 1840 and1855.

Connolly is honored with his name being used for the Connolly (In Calicut they say ‘Canoli’ canal ) Canal that connects the Kallayi river (See my noting on Kallayi in an earlier blog) to the Elattur river. Built in 1848, the 3 mile long canal provides water communication between Beypore and Badagara (BTW the land where the canal crosses Eranhipalam was acquired from my wife’s family!!). These days you have boat tours through the canal!!

Conolly (who was Dist Magistrate during the earlier part of the Moppila outbreaks that lasted from1835-1921) was tragically murdered in 1855 by Moplah fanatics at the start of the Moslem revolt in Malabar. T. This story is recounted by Nick Balmer in his blog Malabar days ……

Connolly lived at that time in the Collector’s bungalow at West Hill. The bungalow is still around and is the home for the Pazhassi (Kerala Varma) Raja museum and they have a Connolly garden in the premises. This is also the location of the VK Krishna Menon museum.

One of Connolly’s tasks was to ensure a steady supply of teak to British shipbuilding yards. For this reason he went about creating up a teak plantation in Nilambur in 1844.

Nilambur is today famous for its teak plantations. Nilambur also a seat of the Zamorins, is famous for a cluster of kovilakoms or residences of the local rajas of earlier days. These houses are famous for their beautiful frescoes and artworks in wood. The oldest teak plantation of the world, the Connolly's Plot is just 2 Kms. from Nilambur town. The Teak Museum at Nilambur chronicles the history of the tree and explores its scientific and artistic uses. The oldest teak tree, Kannimari, is a rare attraction at the Connolly Plot. The plot extends across 2.31 hectares beside the Chaliyar River at Aruvakode, where a country boat ferries visitors across.

How Connolly went about the task of setting up the plantation is very interesting and shows how meticulous a person he was. This strength of character was to put him in good stead for the arduous works that were to be entrusted to him in the future by the East India Company. He started his experiments at teak planting in the 1830’s around Beypore, but the seeds did not germinate. Various other trails were conducted in removing the outer covering of seeds, burning them, getting ants to chew them, planting roots and so on. Finally Connolly requested for a trained arboriculturist, but was told to find one locally and pay him Rs 50 per month (I assume this is when he found Chatu Menon). Various different methods were tried and saplings produced & planted. Connolly complained to his HQ that his methods were based on previous inconclusive studies and his own limited study of the booklet called ‘Forester’s guide’ which was not really the appropriate way to go. However his listening to the local people about the aftermath of forest fires and experimenting with Chatu Menon on pre-burning the seeds seemed to provide best results. Connolly complained thus ‘the more I read, the older the plants become’ and requested more support. Two or more inspectors were sent to inspect the Nilambur experiments and they too prepared exhaustive reports supporting Connolly’s plea. I understood that it was 1860 when action was finally taken and grants provided to improve the plantation.
Teak felled at Nilambur, was floated on through the rivers and canals to Kallayi (just off Calicut town)where they were loaded onto the giant ships headed for Britain. During late 19th century and early 20th century, the Chaliyar River was extensively used as a waterway for carrying timber from the forest areas in and around Nilambur to the various mills in Kallayi near Calicut. Rafts made of logs were taken downstream during the monsoon season to Kallayi, where these were sawn to size in the timber mills dotting the banks of the river. During this period, Kallayi was one of the most important centers (2nd largest) in the world for timber business.

Sir Chathu Menon, the forest officer (titled native sub conservator) under Connolly, who took up the hectic task of single handedly planting teak, was laid to rest in the Teak garden in Connolly's Plot. Chathu Menon, now known as the father of Indian teak plantations, raised more than a million teak plants between 1842 and 1862. He was presented an ornamental woodman’s knife and belt by Lord Harris in Nov 1958. Chatu Menon subsequently trained others to create similar plantations in Canara.

All that being said, why so much emphasis on Teak as timber for ship building? It has its origins in history, and is known for its strength ( called ironwood by the Chinese)longevity spanning thousands of years. A research article states that teak was found in the ruins of an ancient city in Vijayanapur, Southern India. A temple was built on teak planks only 1 1/2 inches thick, but when examined in 1881, the planks were found to be in excellent condition despite 500 years of exposure to the elements. Other evidence of teak's amazing durability is found in cave temples in Salsette, India, where the 2,000-year-old teak remains in mint condition. Mariners regard teak as the most versatile and durable hardwood. Even the decks of the ‘Titanic’ were made of teak and the salvaged teak is still usable. Teak does not warp, twist or expand. The technoqunines in teak naturally repel termites and other bugs. It grows harder with age and is the wood of the ships.

Sadly Connolly’s teak plantations are now on the decline. Much of it is felled and gone, never to be replanted. The land is being used for other purposes. A story about teak thieves can be read here.

A good article about the plot & museum in Nilambur

References - The Forests and Gardens of South India - By Hugh Francis Clarke Cleghorn, Hugh Cleghorn

Connolly’s teak plantation pics – various web sites.

Back home….

It had been a hectic trip – this one, I must admit. Flying through the pacific seas and SE Asia to India, we were well looked after by the many Singapore girls on SAL. After many hours of flying and plied with food and superb shots of Singapore sling, the arrival at the rainy destination of Kochi in the wee hours of the day brought a lot of cheer- finally back home after 3 years this time, the longest stay away from mater land since leaving it over 20 years ago…A long 5 hour drive to Calicut in the pre-dawn hours was interesting, stooping at a roadside food cart for ‘bread omplate and chaya with a lot of mosquitoes nibbling away at our legs.…There were a lot of police on the roads due to the recent bomb explosions and as we neared Calicut, we saw very many dhoti-turban clad ‘musaliyar-koyas’ and disciples walking about in those areas – at 2-3 AM!! The driver, a Mappila lad, murmured that the present times were not good and that he thought twice before replying when somebody asked him his name.

Palakkad remains the same, except for the biggish ‘big bazaar’ super mart, ‘escalator and all’ the talk of the town. People who had tired of going to view Tippu’s fort & Malampuzha now had this object to visit, family in tow, with zealous security guards out there to weed out the non shoppers and check bags going in & out. Pallavur was unchanged, and after many years all the siblings of our family were meeting at the same time with all the kids milling around & playing…

Bangalore followed and that was terrible from a traffic point of view. The Kurla express that took us there by day reminded me of all the fascination only Indian trains can provide, with the multitude of very interesting humans that ride them. This time we had a big group of giggly Irish girls – teens dressed in Indian clothes. They were excited & bubbly from the visit to an orphanage they were supporting from their Church in Ireland. The coordinator showed us the many photos taken with a lot of pride, but it made me rather sad, it took a foreigner to see these invisible masses of humanity. The constructions started from Hosur and well before, apartments after apartments…and the drive from Cantonment to Jayanagar took over an hour when it used to take just 15 minutes. All the malls were checked out and some shopping done. The train trip back was typical, there were some ‘unreserved’ guys who wanted to be in the compartment and obviously picking up a fight with the TTE, threatening him for having asked them to move on..

Then it was back to Calicut where my history aspirations took over. Unfortunately all the good Mappila restaurants were closed for the month due to the Ramadan, but well, Onam festivities were in full swing, so also the DC book fair where amongst others Shoba De attended. Calicut too is taking different looks, with lots of new buildings and a flyover construction at the Mavoor road making life miserable. But well, I was here and there and everywhere, visiting the many bookshops and picking quite a collection of Malabar History books. I found that in addition to the beach, youngsters milled around the new Focus mall while ithatha’s and ummachi’s in burquas tested the escalators. Many new offices required us to remove our shoes/slippers and deposit them at the entrance. I found that my fears that they would be lost had not abated with time, so furtive looks towards the entrance were quite frequent. The Japan aided water pipeline project was the talk of the town (the Japs were being blamed for all the dug up roads!!) and there was this chap who smuggled in many kilos of Iranian saffron and got caught…

And I visited the old house where we lived, which was sold in the 70’s – our visit resulted in much delight for the old lady whose husband had purchased the home. The vast house had thence been partitioned with a wall through the middle by the two inheriting sons…but otherwise it was quite the same. Saw my old ‘Ganapati’ School, went to the Padinjare Kovilakom where the many Zamorin’s, their families and my great grandpa once resided as the Vidwan Zamorin…I met a fascinating relative who told me many of the stories from the past and then I visited and paid obeisance to the present Zamorin, a distinguished and active nonagerian in Calicut.

The monsoons were good company, keeping most nights cool. Ear splitting thunder accompanied the torrents on some nights, was fun listening to it after ages…This visit like others was filled with many interesting incidents, including our attending a court session where I could witness the fascinating cross examination of a canny Moppila landlord. It was a real battle of wits and sadly the old man did get outwitted by the clever lawyer playing on his pride.

It was soon time to fly back immediately after the Onam lunch – after a quick stop over with a dear friend and family in Singapore…We had a jolly time, seeing a night safari and all and of course many a Lamborghini and Ferrari speeding through the pristine streets. The LAX immigration was smooth, a very pleasant officer welcomed us with good cheer…and Hertz upgraded the vehicle request to a luxury car for the drive back home.