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PHOTO: Paul Rollings/Flickr
A healthy colony of honeybees functions as a buzzing, whirring, well-oiled machine. In the peak of summer, a productive hive can have members numbering in the tens of thousands. Between 50,000 and 60,000 members is considered a strong, mature colony. Everyone in the hive has a job, and each does it effectively. Every honeybee works tirelessly to gather nectar, produce honey, raise the young and ensure the colony’s survival for another week, month or year. At the heart of this exceptional work mentality is effective honeybee communication.
Interpersonal honeybee communication enables the colony to complete tasks, safeguard against potential threats and thrive as the superorganism that it is. Honeybees employ many forms of communication, and each one is fascinating. Here are six remarkable things that every beekeeper or bee enthusiast should know about honeybee communication.
1. Bees “Talk” in Total Darkness
In the dark chambers of the honeybee hive, bees don’t rely on their vision to communicate or get around. Instead, they communicate by touch, sound, taste and pheromones.
2. Food Is an Ongoing Conversation Topic
Food sharing within the hive is constant and integral part of communication. Hungry house bees will stop foragers or other house bees to ask for food and will receive sustenance if it’s available. Food travels through the hive quickly. Because of this, any contamination by pesticide, chemical or other foreign substance makes its way through the hive within 48 hours.
3. Pheromones Rule
The queen communicates to all of the members of the hive through her pheromones. There is a constant flow of communication from the queen and her attendants (several dozen bees that care for her and tend to her needs), sending the queen’s pheromones out through the hive in a ripple effect, through the sense of touch. If the queen were to perish, or be superseded, the entire hive would know within about 48 hours as well.
4. Some Communication Is Olfactory
Honeybees have an exceptional sense of smell—one superior to that of mosquitoes or even fruit flies. They prefer sweet smells best of all, which motivates them to visit sweet smelling flowers in search of nectar. They also use this exceptional sense of smell to pick up their hivemates’ and queen’s pheromones.
5. Dance Moves Say a Lot
Foragers returning from the field communicate with others through a series of movements called waggle dances that share precise geographical locations of excellent forage material. In addition to the dances, returning bees share nectar with the new foragers, giving them additional information before they take off on their foraging trips.
6. Choosing a New Home Is a Group Effort
The waggle dance isn’t used solely for sharing the location of nectar sources. When honeybees cast a swarm from their mother hive, the swarm sends scout bees in search of a new home. They return from their expeditions with precise information about potential new home sites, and they use the waggle dance to convey this information. The bees then “vote” on the best location relayed by the scouts, and take off as a single unit to call the site home.
Researchers have spent decades studying the fascinating ways honeybees communicate. In a family unit of tens of thousands of individuals, bees manage to share precise information, make big decisions that affect the entire colony and support one another for the greater good. We could learn a lot from the individual honeybee and her social unit.