The philosopher and the bees

On each expedition the bee does not fly from a flower of one kind to a flower of another, but flies from one violet, say, to another violet, and never meddles with another flower until it has got back to the hive - Aristotle.

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Over 2000 years ago, philosopher Aristotle observed that individual honeybees tend to forage from the same type of flowers. Today, the relationship between bees and flowers will be explored in an upcoming lecture.

Dr Adrian Dyer will discuss how this observation by Aristotle has turned out to be one of the most important insights into understanding the evolution of flower colours at his upcoming lecture ‘The philosopher and the bees: Aristotle and flower consistency in bees’.

Dr Dyer, an Associate Professor in the RMIT University Media and Communication Department and an adjunct in Monash University’s Department of Physiology, said flowering plants required a mechanism to transport pollen between flowers of the same species.

“While this can be achieved through wind pollination, or the distribution of pollen by birds, butterflies and other animals, bees have an especially important role because individually they tend to seek out flowers of the same species, thus enabling very reliable pollen distribution,” Dr Dyer said.

This phenomenon has been well observed over subsequent centuries and initially troubled naturalist Charles Darwin as it appeared too altruistic, and therefore not in line with general principles of evolution theory.

“However, Darwin proposed that individual bees may benefit themselves in being flower constant by reducing requirements on memorising how to handle different flower types at the same time, much like how a person in a workshop will tend to complete each type of job sequentially rather than switching between tasks,” Dr Dyer said.

Dr Dyer’s lecture will show how these important early observations led other researchers to look at the interactions between bees and plants.

His talk is the third of the ‘History of Science, Mathematics, Philosophy and Technology’ lecture series, organised by Dr Alan Dorin from the Monash Faculty of Information Technology.

“Recent research shows that flowers indeed do have evolved colour signals that are best noticed by important pollinators like bees, because their flower constant behaviour has been a major driving force in evolution,” Dr Dyer said.

“Thus, the link between classical observations by the philosopher Aristotle and modern science are teaching us a lot about evolution theory in the 21st century.”

‘The philosopher and the bees: Aristotle and flower consistency in bees’ will be held from 2-3pm on Wednesday, 5 September 2012 in Seminar Room 135, Building 26, at Monash University’s Clayton campus.