Bees are part of the Hymenoptera Order. Other than bees, animals in the Hymenoptera Order include wasps, sawflies, and ants. The insects within this order tend to have rather strict social structures. The way they communicate within their communities is very sophisticated. When speaking about the types of communication used by bees, it is important to acknowledge scientific research dealing with bee communication has mainly been limited to honeybees, more specifically, western honeybees. When we discuss how bees communicate that is the particular species we are addressing.
One reason bee communication research is limited is due to the fact there are over 20 thousand bee species. Also, we have greater access to Western honeybees since they are a highly domesticated species and are the most widely farmed bee species. Before we delve into Western honeybee communication, let’s familiarize ourselves with bees in general.
All About Bees & Bee Colonies
As we mentioned before, there are about 20 thousand known bee species, and countless others not yet discovered. Bees are classified into seven families and can be found everywhere on the planet, except Antarctica. If there are plants dependent on insect pollination, you will find bees. Their main job is assisting the propagation of plant species.
Bees like the stingless bee can be as small as 0.08″ in, while the Megachile Pluto, leaf-cutter bee is a large as 1.54″ in. In the Northern Hemisphere, sweat bees are very prominent. However, their tiny size and sometimes plain coloring causes many to mistake them as flies.
When discussing how bees communicate one must first identify which senses they use. With the exception of shades of red bees are able to see in color. They are also very sensitive to ultraviolet light. Their ability to see ultraviolet light helps them to detect plants that have nectar guides. Nectar guides are patches of ultraviolet light emitted by plants, and some angiosperm, designed to attract pollinators such as bees.
Outside of their uniquely developed sight, honeybees have a highly sophisticated olfactory system. They are very sensitive to odors, be that nectar or pheromones. They can discriminate based on classical and operant conditioning and are able to retain the information they learn for several days. When foraging, they quickly adjust to food availability. It's believed by some that they make mental maps of their surroundings.
Interesting Bee Facts
Bees have natural predators. These include animals such as birds, bee wolves, and dragonflies. Nevertheless, most bees are solitary in nature. Only a small percentage of bees are social. Examples of social bees include honeybees, bumblebees, and stingless bees. Social bees live within colonies. Colonies vary greatly in size. Some species, like the bumblebee, may have a few as 200 individuals within a colony, while Western honeybee colonies have tens of thousands of individuals as the norm.
Bees As Pollinators
Bees were designed to have a symbiotic relationship with plants. They are perfectly suited for feeding on nectar and pollen. Nectar provides the bee with an energy source while pollen is rich in protein and nutrients. Bee larva is mostly fed a pollen diet. The benefit to the plant is reproductive assistance or pollination.
Bee pollination is crucial for wild plant life. However, it is also one of the main ways commercial farming maintains its production success. For that reason, and a love of honey, beekeeping has been practiced for millennia. In these times, where wild bee populations are rapidly on the decline, commercial pollination has become more crucial. Other than pollination and honey, beeswax, royal jelly, and propolis are beneficial resources harvested from bees.
How Bees Communicate in Social Structures
There are three types of bees in a hive: queens, workers, drones. While only one queen lays eggs per hive, other queens are made to support swarming or to replace a failing queen. Worker bees is a broad category that can be broken down into sub-categories denoting various groups specific functions. Drones are the only males. They are kept solely for reproduction and are forced out of the hive every winter.
All of the bees in a colony work toward a singular purpose. They act as a “super-organism” to ensure the growth and health of their colony. Each Western honeybee colony can have up to 100 thousand members. To maintain such a highly structured social network, how bees communicate, is with advanced communication techniques.
How Bees Communicate With Pheromones
A significant portion of honeybee communication is through the use of pheromones. Pheromones are hormones designed to trigger specific responses in members within a species. Honeybees have a chemical communication network that is very complicated. The release of a specific pheromone is a call to a specific action. Honeybees have a very complex chemical communication system. In fact, they are believed to have one of the most complex systems in the natural world.
Sounding The Alarm!
An illustration of this system will be if one worker discovers a threat to the hive. In order to communicate this threat as quickly as possible, she will release an alarm pheromone. The response the pheromone releases is so immediate and coordinated it is shocking. Workers flock to the location of the threat and prepare for a fight!
Many beekeepers can attest to the effectiveness of this system. You are likely familiar with seeing beekeeper using smoke when they approach hives. The tool employed is called a smoker. It is used to help disrupt pheromone communication between the bees. With their communication being disrupted, the bees remain calmer and are easier to handle.
Other Pheromone Communication
Outside of sounding the alarm, bees use pheromones to coordinate a variety of hive necessities like egg laying. The queen is the only fertile female of the hive. She uses specific pheromones to control hive reproduction. These include pheromones that prevent her all-female workforce from the desire to mate. Also, she releases pheromones that encourage the male drones to mate with her. She even has a unique odor that informs the colony she is healthy and alive.
When beekeepers want to introduce a new queen into a hive, they cage her for several days. This is so her future subordinates will get used to her scent. The chemical signals used by bees are so strong that if the queen is unprotected before the hive is acclimated the hive may reject and kill the queen.
Pheromones also control the nursing of larva, finding food, spatial orientation, swarming and other such activities. Chemical communication allows hive members to function more cohesively. It is safe to say the colony would dip into chaos without it. That said, there is another means of communication bees use, dancing. We will discuss that next.
How Bees Communicate With Dancing
People have been aware for some time that honey bees dance to communicate. In the literary and scientific world, writings like Historia Animalium by Aristotle address the behavior. Also, Karl Von Frischwon won a Nobel Prize that was partially due to his research into honeybees dancing. In some of the experiments he conducted, he placed a hive in a field with access to a nectar feeder. He observed the bees carefully and noticed they did a waggling dance inside of the hive.
He monitored the bees who danced throughout the day. Ultimately Dr. Frisch calculated the angle the bees did the dance correlated to where the sun was located in the sky. Ultimately he determined the bees were sharing the location of the feeder. He continued to study the dance and determined what he believed to be a language that communicated distance.
The dance is done by a bee walking while vigorously shaking its abdomen and buzzing. One variation of the dance resembles a figure eight with a repetition of the straight portion every time it reaches the center of the pattern. Other variations include a more circular dance, believed to relate to food within 50 meters of the hive, and a crescent-shaped dance, believed to alert members to food 50-150 meters away from the hive.
The use of pheromones for bee communication is undisputed. However, some researchers believe communication through dance is not for the relaying of information at all. Rather, since bees have one of the most developed olfactory systems in the animal kingdom, the dance may be used to get attention. Once attention is garnered, proponents of odor plume theory say other bees are recruited by smell. Once the scent of the food source is shared, other bees can use the scent to find the food source.
Interestingly, there is little dispute on either side that odor is used for recruitment. It is only the information about the dance that is debated. Experiments where odorless sugar sources were used – resulting in bees being unable to locate the food source – fuel the debate. Also, there is a logical debate about if a dance done at such confined measurements can accurately give directional information for a location several kilometers away. Even the slightest mistake would throw other bees off course by hundreds of meters.
All of that said, one thing is for sure, bees are phenomenal animals who are highly intelligent, and further research into their behavior can only aid conservation efforts worldwide, and help us to continue to learn how bees communicate.