The Waggle Dance

Aerial Gilbert can tell a lot about her bees just by listening. She has three beehives on her back patio in Petaluma, California. “I can hear how the bees are behaving — if they’re agitated, if there are other bees trying to get in the hive, or if it’s too crowded or too hot or too cold,” she says. What you want to hear, she says, is a calm steady buzz. That indicates that everything in the hive is going smoothly.

When Gilbert went blind in 1988, beekeeping was one of the hobbies she figured she’d have to give up. “There's so much visual information you get by looking at the honeycomb and the brood nest,” Gilbert says. “I didn't think I could be a good beekeeper without being able to see.”

But in the years since losing her sight, Gilbert has found ways to do the things she used to love. She hikes, goes rowing, takes photographs using sound cues to locate the subject, the list goes on. Now she’s beekeeping again, too.

In order to tend her hives, Gilbert relies a lot on sound. While she misses some of the visual beauty of the bees, she says a whole new way of understanding and appreciating bees has opened up to her. Not only are the bees beautiful in a different way, she is using sound to have a far better understanding of her hives than she ever did when she was sighted.


Gilbert is in her early 60s with a crop of black hair and an athletic frame. She used to be a nurse, and with the decisive yet gentle way she moves her hands, you sense she was good at it.

Although Gilbert can’t see, she doesn’t hesitate to open the hives in her backyard and reach down into the humming mass of thousands of bees. Her fingers softly brush against their bodies, and they don’t seem to mind. She calls the bees her “girls.”

When Gilbert was 10 years old, a swarm of bees flew into her backyard. They were looking for a new home. Hundreds of thousands of bees coalesced in a big buzzing ball on a tree. And they stayed, humming in a giant mass.

Gilbert’s grandfather remembered the name of a local beekeeper and gave him a call. He said he’d be happy to come get the bees. When he arrived, Gilbert watched the beekeeper walk calmly over to the giant blob of bees and scoop them up with his bare hands. If handled correctly, a swarm of bees won't sting you. The beekeeper carried the swarm back to his car and left. Gilbert was mesmerized.

When Gilbert was a junior in high school, her parents finally capitulated to her demand for her own hive. She ordered her first bees from Sears and Roebuck. “They came in the mail, along with the hive,” she says. “The postman was terrified. He got to the door and my mom was there, and he just shoved them in her face and said, ‘These your bees, lady?’”

It took a long time for Gilbert to get used to being around bees. “When I first started beekeeping I was afraid of them,” she says. She would gear up in a white suit with big thick gloves. She couldn’t have imagined closing her eyes and sticking her hands down into the hive.

Aerial Gilbert prepares to work with her bees, who she calls her "girls." PHOTO COURTESY OF SAM HARNETT AND CHRIS HOFF


Gilbert lost her vision instantaneously. In 1988, she was working a night shift at Marin General Hospital. The AC was on in the building and it dried her eyes out. On the way home after work, she stopped at a pharmacy to get some eye drops. She opened her eyes and popped a few drops in each one. Suddenly she was struck with intense pain and her vision completely vanished.

Someone had tampered with the eye drops. They were filled with drain cleaner, and they blinded her immediately.

The first few months were brutal. “I felt sorry for myself. I was afraid of everything. I kind of closed myself down to ‘you might as well be dead,’” Gilbert says. “I didn't think I could do anything.”

At first she thought she might get her vision back. From conversations with her doctors she slowly realized that was never going to happen. She wasn’t even going to get partial vision back.

She was crushed. It was hard for her to do anything, even get up in the morning. It upended Gilbert’s life. Her marriage ended and she had to stop working as a nurse. The hospital gave her a job developing X-rays. That was the only place they were comfortable having a blind person work. So she would sit in a small dark room all day, developing film.

After six months Gilbert reached a breaking point. “I woke up one day and started projecting out what my life would be like because going in the direction I was going wasn’t working,” she says. “I had always been very active. Now I was going to have a really boring life if I didn’t do something to change this.”

“I made the decision: no more feeling sorry for myself,” Gilbert says, “No more hiding, no more being afraid, because I am allowing whoever this person was to still hurt me.”

Gilbert enrolled at a nearby school for the blind. She lived there for six months to learn things like reading with braille, using a white cane, and navigating with sound: “basically the tricks of being blind,” she says.

Gilbert shares her experiences with the authors. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAM HARNETT AND CHRIS HOFF


A few years ago, a friend had some hives that needed to be looked after. She asked Gilbert if she could take them for a bit. At first Gilbert hesitated. How could she be a beekeeper if she didn’t see? After much encouragement, she decided to at least try.

As soon as the hives arrived, Gilbert was relieved. She hadn’t realized how much she was missing bees, and she was ecstatic to have them back in her life. Soon after they came, she realized that much of the information about bees she had gathered before with her eyes, she could now gather with her ears.

Whenever Gilbert is out working on the hives, she is listening to them, keeping tabs on how they sound. She bought some microphones to make recordings inside the hive. They give her an audio snapshot of what’s happening with her bees. For instance, she can hear if there are invader bees who have come to steal honey, or if there is a sickness in the hive and some bees have died off.

Gilbert can even hear the waggle dance, which is the movement bees make to tell others where to find pollen. Not only can she discern the dance in her recordings, she has started to notice variations in the sound depending on where the pollen is located.

“The dance, it kind of happens in a little circle,” Gilbert says. “You’ll hear ‘bzzz bzzz bzzz,’ and it’s different patterns depending on how far away the pollen is.”

Gilbert is not the first blind person to take an interest in bees. Eighteenth-century Swiss entomologist Francois Huber began losing his sight at age 15, but made important discoveries about the lives of bees.

Researchers like Tom Seeley at Cornell University recognize that bees communicate a lot through sound. Seeley wrote a book called “Honeybee Democracy” about the decision-making process inside a hive, and he’s currently recording them to better understand their behavior.

Seeley says you can listen to an entire democratic process unfolding inside a hive: the high-pitched buzz of worker bees telling the queen it’s time to fly to a new home. The short, high-pitched bursts when a bee disagrees with a decision inside a hive and wants to vote against it. And there is, of course, the waggle dance that Gilbert knows to listen for.

“Not only can she discern the dance in her recordings, she has started to notice variations in the sound depending on where the pollen is located."


Gilbert has since fallen in love again and remarried. She’s an active volunteer in her hometown of Petaluma and has traveled extensively.

After learning how indispensable guide dogs were to her own life, Gilbert began working at Guide Dogs for the Blind, promoting the school throughout the country and running their extensive volunteer program. It’s been a full life since losing her sight, but not one without troubles.

Years ago, Gilbert donated one of her kidneys to a friend. The friend recovered, but Gilbert suffered a rare complication that caused her remaining kidney to begin failing. She has managed it for years, but now, she needs someone to donate a kidney to her.

Gilbert now spends a lot of time at home due to her health and has been kept from many of the activities she loves, like rowing. But she continues to take care of her hives. After losing bees once in her life, she doesn't want to go without them ever again.

Tending bees without sight has shown Gilbert that the sounds they make are not only practical, but also incredibly beautiful. And despite the difficulties of adjusting to her loss of vision, she gained something by being forced to listen to her world. And she would never want to give up the magic of those sounds.

Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett of "The World According to Sound" podcast are partnering with the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco to help reimagine California in the rich way blind people experience it every day.