Honey Bee Communication: They May be
Better Communicators Than Humans!
Honey bee communication is an amazing process.
How so? Well, imagine that you need to communicate to a friend how to get to a specific location (let’s call it point B) that is about 4 miles away from where you both stand (point A).
And it’s vitally important. The long-term survival of both of you and your families depend upon it.
Shouldn’t be too difficult, should it? You’ll just tell your friend which street to go down, and how far, and where to turn off to get to point B.
But you can’t do that, because in our imaginary scenario there are no streets or street signs. You are out in the wilderness.
There are no distinguishing landmarks or geographical markers; there is only point A and point B, separated by about 4 miles (3.87 miles, to be precise, and you have to communicate that exact distance to your friend, as well!).
Well, maybe you could tell your friend exactly which direction to go, and how far to walk.
Sorry, but neither of you can speak. You can make sounds, but you can’t form words.
And you can’t read or write. And neither of you can see the other, so you can’t guide your friend. And you can't take your friend by the hand to lead her to the destination.
But again, if you don’t direct your friend to point B, your families will die.
Can you do it?
Honey bees can.
Are You Talking to Me?
Perhaps no single characteristic more defines a species than the means by which members of the species communicate among themselves.
And honey bees are amazingly effective at communicating with one another. They have to be, because honey bees are highly social insects, and without effective honey bee communication, the complex social structure of the hive would not be possible.
Honeybees, of course, must forage for their food. At any one time, as many as 35% of the foraging bees of a colony are serving as scouts; searching for new, untapped sources of nectar and pollen.
With a potential foraging area of more than 200 square miles, the scouts need to be able to communicate their findings to other members of the colony, so that foragers can maximize the yield from each source.
Without such organization and teamwork, the colony would not be able to forage effectively enough to sustain the hive.
So how does one lone scout bee direct her sisters to point B?
Dance, Baby, Dance!
You probably know already that one form of bee communication is dancing, but did you know that bees can give such intricate and precise directions by dancing? This is how it works:
Through variations of the speed of the honey bee dance, the pattern of the dance, and sounds emitted by the dancing bee, the distance and direction to the food source is communicated. Movements by the dancing bee relative to the pull of gravity are translated into bearings by the audience bees.
The “compass” that the bees use to translate the bearings into a physical direction is the sun.
While she’s dancing, the scout bee distributes samples of the nectar from the new food source to the audience bees. The audience bees can also smell the fragrance of the new source clinging to the dancing bee’s body, and this will help them in identifying the new find when they get to point B.
Many plants yield nectar or pollen only during a specific time of day, and even this bit of information is communicated by the bee dance, since the dance only occurs during the time of day that the source is available.
Remarkably, all of this information is transferred within the depths of the hive, in pitch-black darkness.
None of the bees are able to see the dance. The bees are able to sense the movements of the dancer by touch – with some of the audience bees following and mimicking the dancer – and also through feeling the air movements created by the dancer.
It’s thought that bees are able to sense the direction of movement of the air particles set in motion by the dancing bee, and by sensing the air movement, they can interpret the movements of the dance, even without seeing or touching the dancer.
It’s also interesting to note that nature has built a defense mechanism into the dancing method of bee communication.
Scout bees, upon discovering a new source, will make a number of trips to the new source before announcing the discovery to the hive. It’s as if they are testing the new source, making sure that it’s worthy of announcing to the entire hive.
But because of this delay, if there are any natural toxins or pesticides present in the new source, the scout bee is likely to die before she “tells” thousands of foragers about the discovery.
And if there happens to be extraordinarily heavy predator activity in the vicinity of the new source, it’s less likely that the scout bee will survive all of her initial visits to the new source before communicating the find. This delay may spare the hive the huge losses it might otherwise incur if the scout bee announced the discovery immediately.
What’s That Smell?
Dancing isn’t the only form of honey bee communication. They can also communicate by smell – or, at least, what you and I would think of as smell.
This form of bee communication utilizes chemicals that are called pheromones. Honey bees secrete many different pheromones, and these play crucial roles in helping to regulate the activities of the hive.
Each unique pheromone transmits a unique message or signal from the bee emitting the pheromone to the bee receiving it.
A pheromone released during the process of stinging, for example, spreads an alarm signal throughout the hive, and serves to mark the sting victim as the target for additional bees responding to the alarm.
Queen bee pheromones identify the queen to other members of the hive, and help drones to locate her during mating flights.
And foraging honeybees even mark flowers that are found to be inadequate sources of nectar or pollen with a scent that basically says “don’t waste your time here” to any bee that may visit that flower later. On the other hand, pheromones deposited on a flower by the feet of many foraging bees may inform a later visitor that “there’s good stuff here!”
They get the Message
All things considered, wouldn’t you agree that honey bees are amazingly adept at communicating among themselves? In fact, in some ways, I’m not so sure that honey bee communication doesn’t beat human communication for pure and simple effectiveness!
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