Behind the folklore: bees and rain: Do bees know when it's going to rain?

Behind the folklore: bees and rain: Do bees know when it's going to rain?

Thu, 05/07/2012 - 11:04
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When bees to distance wing their flight / Days are warm and skies are bright / But when their flight ends near their home / Stormy weather is sure to come.

Nature-related weather folklore tends to fall down for one of two reasons—either it attributes to plants and animals the kind of soothsayer-ish long-term forecasting ability which even now remains beyond the power of our finest minds and fastest supercomputers, or else it fails to establish any kind of reasonable motive for nature's supposed response to the elements. Why would a cow lie down before it rains? Why would an owl hoot to foretell fair weather?

But the ability of some plants and animals to respond to the many environmental indicators that can foreshadow an imminent change in weather conditions should not be dismissed out of hand, especially if there is a good reason for them to do so. This is certainly the case with this lovely little piece of folklore relating to bees, which appeared in a book entitled Weather Lore, written by Richard Inwards in 1893, but is in fact so old that it may even once have rhymed properly.

There are some very good reasons why bees would wish to avoid rainy weather, and why those that could do so would have an evolutionary advantage over those that couldn't. Firstly, there's the risk of death or injury that heavy rain represents, with bees on the wing unlikely to fare well under a barrage of big, fat raindrops. Added to this is the strong likelihood that a bee's extraordinary navigational abilities rely to a large extent upon the sun, meaning that the arrival of dark rainclouds would be the equivalent of somebody smashing up its satnav.

And given that bees are able to communicate with each other through the medium of dance and maintain vast communities that put humans to shame, a bit of short term weather forecasting shouldn't be beyond their abilities. They certainly appear to have a great deal of sensitivity to changes in temperature, air pressure and wind direction, so it is entirely conceivable that they could accurately predict the imminent approach of precipitation.

Other similar sayings share the same sentiment—""bees will not swarm before a storm"", ""if bees fly away, fine will be the day"", ""when many bees enter the hive and none leave it, rain is near""—although whoever came up with that last one could have worked a bit harder to come up with at least a semblance of a rhyme. Even the great Roman poet Virgil had his say. In his Georgics Book IV, written some time in the first century BC, he reflects at length upon the extraordinary world of honeybees. Among his many observations is this one: ""Some, too, the wardship of the gates befalls, who watch in turn for showers and cloudy skies.""

Image: Jose Reynaldo da Fonseca