Did you know that bees are the only animal, apart from humans, which are known to share complex symbolic communication? To date, much scientific research has been carried out on social colonies of bees, including honey and stingless varieties of bees, in order to better understand their communicative patterns.
However, how exactly do bees communicate with one another that make them such an interesting creature to observe?
1. Movement and Dancing
In general bees are a colony based insect, and have numerous different ways of communicating with other members of the hive. One of the most frequently observed forms of communication among bees is that of movement or dance.
Dancing is a symbolic form of communication that is normally observed in worker bees and allows them to communicate to other workers where the nearest locations of food can be found. This communication is called ‘waggle dancing’, and it is thought that those bees assigned as food scouts to will communicate the whereabouts of this food by dancing to the other worker bees when they return to the hive.
Waggle dancing is composed of many subtle symbolic communication techniques including wing beating which is believed to inform the other bees of the exact distance of the food source. The body alignment of the scout bee is also believed to inform the other bees of the direction they will need to travel to find the feeding site.
A bee which has located a feeding site which is quite close to the hive, around a distance of fifty metres or less, will usually exhibit dancing whereby the movements are more confined and rounded, known as a ‘round dance’. However, a bee which has discovered a feeding site which is further away from the hive, up to one hundred and fifty metres, will display movements which are more open and crescent shaped, known as a ‘sickle dance’.
2. Odours and Pheromones
Another way bees communicate to one another is through odour and pheromones. Pheromones play an important role in bee reproductive behaviour, and the queen bee will emit pheromones to let male drones know she is ready to mate and to reassure the colony of her safety. The queen also uses pheromones to dissuade female worker bees from mating.
Pheromone odours also form part of the bees defensive communication, and pheromones are thought to be emitted when a bee stings an animal it believes to be a threat. This will then alert other bees to the danger the hive faces, and may result in the attacker being stung multiple times.
When communicating through dancing, bees will also collect odours from the flowers which will give worker bees more information about the location of the food source.
3. Food Sharing
For bees, food sharing is another important method of communication, particularly when combined with other forms of communication such as dancing. When a scout bee returns to the hive to communicate the whereabouts of food, they may also bring back a sample of the food source and share this with other worker bees to communicate the quality of the food that is on offer to them. This provides added incentive for the worker bees to travel vast distances and bring it back to the hive.
Hadley, D. (2010) ‘Honey Bees – Communication within the Honey Bee Colony’, About.com, [Online] Available from: http://insects.about.com/od/antsbeeswasps/p/honeybeecommun.htm [Last Accessed: 18-02-2010]
Snodgrass, W. ‘Communication in bees’ Science Matters, [Online] Available from: http://www.ucsd.tv/sciencematters/lesson2-bees.shtml [Last Accessed: 18-02-2010]