Bee Communication

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Bee Communication

The honey bee colony is a complex superorganism that at its maximum population consists of 1 queen, about 500-100 drones and 30,000 - 50,000 worker bees. For the colony to operate smoothly and efficiently it needs to have some sophisticated communication methods - the alternative would be chaos and the colony would quickly die. So, during the course of evolution the bees have developed efficient means of communication that maintains the smooth running of the hive and ensures the members of the colony are working in the manner that is most beneficial to the colony.

Bees use 4 main methods of communication plus some simple feedback mechanisms that control the speed of things such as nectar and water flow into the hive.  These are:

  • Food sharing
  • Dances
  • Pheromones
  • Vibration (including sound)

Food sharing (sometimes called trophallaxis) is the continual offering and accepting of food between individuals to such an extent that the gut contents of each bee are largely the same as every other individual in the colony. As well as food there are also chemicals known as pheromones being passed around. Some of these are derived from the workers grooming and licking the queen and the resulting inclusion of queen pheromones into the mix ensures that the bees are aware the queen is present and that each worker bee knows her home colony - and may also be able to recognise sisters and supersisters.

Equally important is that the presence of the queen's pheromones controls a range of worker bee behaviour, in particular the swarming instinct. As long as there is plenty of queen substance from a vigorous queen the swarming instinct will be suppressed and so will any urge that the workers may have to lay eggs. As soon as there are too many bees, or ventilation impeding the dispersal of queen substance occurs the workers will start to make swarm preparations.

A most significant scent (pheromone) based behaviour is the initiation of stinging behaviour by the release if alarm pheromones when an intruder disturbs the hive and ensures that very quickly many worker bees are on the spot to repel the invaders with their stings - often giving their lives to protect their colony from danger. It is this behaviour that means that beekeepers have to take care about being safe when managing honey bees.

Bees also perform various dances and vibrations that share information and contain specific messages. The food dances are well known and variable according to the distance top the forage source. The most sophisticated id the waggle dance which indicate food at a distance of more than 90 metres. This is performed on the vertical comb face where the top of the comb indicates the exact position of the sun. The dancing bees run in a figure or eight with the straight part of the wagtail line positioned at an angle which indicates the direction of the food source relative to the sun.  So, if the wagtail line runs vertically it indicate fly directly towards the sun. The rate at which the bee dances, the number of figures of eight completed, the length of time and the duration of the buzz made on the straight part of the run are all related to the distance of the food source. At the same time the dancers are handing out small samples of the nectar and the foragers smell the pollen on its legs so they know what the flower source is like. 

Feedback systems operate so that the bees know whether the colony needs strong nectar, weak nectar or water. When a foraging bee returns with the type of nectar that the bees need most it is quickly taken form here at the entrance to the hive by a receiver bee. This receiver bee will take the nectar to the cell and pack it into cell so that the foraging bee can get back to foraging more quickly. If the nectar is a less desirable type then the forager must pack it into the honey comb herself. This slows her down and also makes it more likely that she will come into contact with a dancing bee and have her attention diverted to a better nectar source. Similarly, if many bees are dancing to identify a particular nectar source, the bees circled around them that are observing the dance will also be many.  The more vigorous the dance the more bees will be attracted to watch. Conversely, as the source diminishes fewer bees will dance to show its location and they will dance less vigorously.  Thus, many fewer bees will be attracted to this source. The consequence of this behaviour is that foragers can quickly be diverted to exploit the best forage sources very quickly.

A similar dance language is used for communication where nest sites are to be investigated while the colony is clustered during swarming. Scouts can indicate the best nest sites by dancing on the surface of the swarm cluster until a consensus is reached about which nest site is best.

Three basic dance types have been identified. A round dance, used primarily to recruit workers to nearby resources; the waggle dance, which transmits resource information in amore complex way for more distant resources and the DVAV (dorsoventral abdominal vibrating) dance. Other dances have also been noticed that involve jostling, shaking, buzzing and trembling but as yet these are poorly understood.  The vibration dances happen hundreds of times in any hour in the colony and are now known to regulate both daily and seasonal foraging patter4sn according to fluctuation of food availability.  In addition it also regulates the queen's activities in particular where this is associated with swarming. It may be used to prepare queens for swarming or mating flights and it is also used to control the emergence of queens from swarm cells and consequently the amount of secondary swarming that will occur.

This is only the smallest description of the complexity of communication among social bees, especially Apis mellifera although evidence suggests communication systems are similar in other Apis species.  Winston (1987) indicated that as many as 39 pheromones may be needed to control all the activities of the colony while scientists have only identified about 17. This shows that there is plenty more to learn about honey bee communication systems.

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  • Language English
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  • Author Bees for Development
  • Publisher Bees for Development
  • Published Date October 2016
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