AUGUST 28, 2021
On June 13, 1955, German biologist Max Renner reached Paris’s Orly airport to board a flight to New York. Renner was carrying a very peculiar piece of luggage – a wooden box sized seven by two metres that produced a mysterious hum.
The biologist, who was a student of future Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, chose to carry this special case with himself. The reason was the box contained 5,000 bees that would die if they travelled in the luggage section of the aeroplane. Renner had a hard time getting import licenses for the bees and now convincing the flight staff to let him carry the insects. At one point when the flight crew were about to spray DDT inside the aeroplane, the scientists had to threaten them that he would let the bees lose if they did not stop.
The curious journey was a part of an equally curious experiment being overseen by Frisch. Using the experiment, scientists wanted to find out if bees got jet lag? The reason scientists wanted to know if bees get jet lag or not is because it would provide a conclusion to their long series of experiments that sought to find if bees could perceive time.
Earlier, Frisch and his students had tried many ways to understand the time perception of bees. Among the first experiments, which were conducted by Frisch’s other student Ingeborg Beling, Beling found that when bees were given sugar water at a set time in a day, they came out of their hives at that exact time to have their next meal. To make sure that it was not the smell of the sugar that brought them out of their hives, Beling did not put sugar water on the next day and the bees still came out. The experiment indicated that bees could have the ability to track time, which makes them capable of expecting sugar water at the exact time in the day. In other words, bees were keeping time, but how? Was it an external clock — such as sunlight — or an internal one — like that in humans?
Scientists repeated the experiment in the dark and the bees did not lose the track of time, which proved that it was not the sunlight. However, Frisch still had a feeling that it could be some other solar radiation that was unknown at the time and communicated temporal information to the little insects. Now, it was only a jet lag experiment that could put an end to the doubts if bees had an internal clock. If bees perceive time via some solar radiation that occurs at say 8:30 pm, if their time zones are switched, it would not matter to them if fewer or more hours have passed, because in the new timezone, the solar radiation would happen at 8:30 pm and the bees could detect it. Or in other words, they would not suffer jet lag. Interestingly, when Renner reached New York, his experiment showed that the bees suffered jet lag and they came out of their hives exactly 24 hours after their last meal, no matter what the time was in the new timezone. The experiment finally showed that the bees had an internal clock.