City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

From A-to-Bee

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Interesting story filed in the ‘Navigation/Wayfinding‘ section of the BBC News site today. (Sorry, that should read "the ‘Science/Nature‘ section of the BBC News site". I forgot to remove my filter.)


On bumblebees. And their extraordinary facility for wayfinding.

"What we are showing is that it is eminently possible for bumblebees to forage more than five kilometres from the nest," said co-author Dr Mark O’Neill, from the University of Oxford … It is not entirely clear how the insects navigate but their vision seems to help keep them on course and recognise landmarks. "We believe there will be a difference, because they use vision, especially the horizon edge for guidance. So a cluttered environment is liable to be more problematic and challenging to the bees than a green field environment," said Dr O’Neill."

"The insects’ "maps" also include odours, but these are limited to less than 2m (7ft). For example, when a bee has emptied the nectar in a flower, it leaves chemical "post-it notes" to tell others where it has been. The countryside has a more varied scent composition than the urban landscape, and researchers are now plotting bee routes to see which kinds of environment the insects prefer. "We are trying to find out more about how bees forage, or look for their food," explained Dr O’Neill. "We’re particularly interested to see if they find certain environments easier to navigate."

Interesting stuff. Full story.

Coincidentally, I picked up a couple of books for the office recently, neither of which appear to mention bees but perhaps ought to. The first, entitled Wayfinding (Rotovision) has been out a while, and looks OK if a little mundane. The second – and perhaps I’m being seduced by the sheer quality of Lars Müller publications here – looks far more interesting, and is called Wayshowing by Per Mollerup.

It’s utterly beautiful and looks to pull of the trick off being thorough, imaginative and practical. For example, Mollerup’s introduction includes a couple of definitions of ‘sign’:

"The first meaning covers the sign outside the butcher’s shop, the directional signs in the airport, the traffic signs in the street, and so on. The other meaning uses the word ‘sign’ to stand for any phenomenon that has a meaning. That usage is related to Umberto Eco’s definition of a sign as anything that human beings can use to lie. In this meaning, the word ‘sign’ is used more or less synonymously with with such words as ‘mark’, ‘symbol’ and ‘signal’. A letter, a whistle signal, a red beret, a hand waving, and a Nike swoosh are all signs. But so are the signs outside the butcher’s shop and any other sign in the narrow meaning described previously. The broad meaning includes the narrow meaning, not the other way round"

By widening the scope, ‘Wayshowing’ is deliciously ambitious. Yet it’s full of practical examples, models and photographs, and it looks like I’ll be drawing from it for years. As to the title:

"Wayfinding’ is a term that many designers and manufacturers of signs and signage systems like to use. They claim that they work with wayfinding. Perhaps they do, but they haven’t found a way to precise language. In their work as sign writers, they should be occupied with ‘wayshowing’. Wayshowing relates to wayfinding as writing relates to reading and as speaking relates to hearing. The purpose of wayshowing is to facilitate wayfinding. Wayshowing is the means. Wayfinding is the end. Wayshowing is a new terms developed by the author of this book to clarify this distinction."

Some page spreads and a handy link below.


Wayshowing, by Per Mollerup [Amazon UK|US]


One response to “From A-to-Bee”

  1. Adam Richardson Avatar

    My wife has recently taken up bee keeping on a small scale in our garden, and they really are fascinating little beasties. One of the things that’s strange about them is that you can move the hive either less than 5 feet or more than 5 miles (I guess bees are not metric yet!).
    Stupid as it may sound, it’s absolutely true. We recently had to move one of the hives about 8 feet, and when we tried it one evening all in one go, the next morning the bees were just buzzing around like crazy trying to find it again after coming back from pollen gathering. When we shifted it 3 feet back toward its earlier position, all was fine again. A few days later we shifted it the remaining distance, and no problem.
    A friend of mine commented that this is how governments work – they can do small tweaks or tear things down and start over. Stuff in the middle is beyond their ken. I don’t know if this is generalizable out to humanity overall, but it’s an intriguing metaphor.


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