The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Beekeeping Topics

Honey Bee Communication and Behavior

- December 1, 2015 -

If you wish to investigate a frustratingly difficult problem, the communication of eusocial insects will not disappoint you. Multiple specialized glands produce a variety of sensory stimulation chemical compounds in ants, bees and wasps. These molecular concoctions can and do relate different signals to stimulate various activities and behaviors. The different compounds can be used alone to mean one thing or together express a different meaning. Some of the chemistry is tactile requiring body contact while others are odiferous and float in the air.

Sex attractants are commonly long distance. It will help a male and fertile female find one another from a long distance. Other signals must be passed between individuals often in the dark. These signals often consist of more than one chemical compound and therefore are exceedingly elusive to decipher. Bees have chemical signals in abundance. All individuals in a colony do not respond the same way to the variety of chemical signals. These signals convey complex, versatile information that stimulate different behaviors from different bees.
With honey bees there is another form of communication. The “dance language” discovered by a remarkably brilliant scientist, Karl Von Frisch, is different from any other animal communication known. The waggle dance is performed by a field bee. She will dance in a figure of the numeral 8, but she waggles in a straight line making up one inside path of the 8. She attracts the attention of other bees. These sisters touch her with their antennae whereby they receive both mechanical and chemical messages. The dance is employed when a forager finds a large supply of something that is in short supply within the colony. The commodity found maybe nectar, water or pollen.

If a commodity is in short supply, the bees know this. If that commodity is in short supply, the colony demand will increase and more resources will be employed to gather a supply. How would the bees know if something is in short supply? Trophallaxis is one answer. The bees, including incoming foragers transfer the contents of their honey stomach to other bees. This product, nectar, water or pollen with associated odors and taste is transferred through the colony. Returning workers have difficulty unloading nectar if the colony is getting overheated. The pollen gatherers also get less attention than those bees gathering water. Foragers will switch from gathering food or resins for propolis when water is unloaded more quickly; they go to water supplies communicated by vigorous waggle dances of the water foragers.
The queen and larvae are also fed using trophallaxis. Any shortage of water or food will quickly be realized by those bees responsible for feeding the larvae. If the temperature of the colony begins to increase slightly, that information is also transmitted by house bees. If the particular commodity is within 50 meters of the hive, the returning bees use a round dance to confer the information. The angle of direction is indicated by the angle of the straight line portion of the dance with the waggle. The bee is dancing in the dark on a vertical surface. The angle between the dance line and the vertical line of the comb indicates the angle formed from the colony to the source of the commodity and position of the sun. A vertical dance indicates a horizontal angle in the field between the observed position of the sun, the home colony and the commodity in short supply. This is a foreign language that we do not completely understand.

When her sisters follow the dancer closely, they must …