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How do bees communicate?

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Beehives are busy places with thousands of bees in a confined space. There are many roles within the hive each requiring constant communication and interaction. But how do bees do all that?!


Many people don’t even reaise how advanced and complex the bees’ communication system is. Karl von Frisch, an Austrian ethologist, was the first to explained the meaning of bee dance, for which he received a shared Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.


Thanks to Frisch’s work, we now know that bees can differentiate between different flowers based on taste and that they see colors almost like humans. Interestingly, however, the color vision of bees shifts towards ultraviolet, so although red is less perceived, the UV pattern reflected on the flower petals is even more so.


Bees communicate flower location using special dances inside the hive. One bee dances, while other bees watch to learn the directions to a specific flower patch. The dancing bee smells like the flower patch, and also gives the watching bees a taste of the nectar she gathered. Smell and taste helps other bees find the correct flower patch.


Finding the best flowers

Honey bee colonies collect two main resources from flowers: nectar and pollen. Their goal is to find the flowers with the most of these two resources. Individual bees do two things when searching for flowers to get the most resources. First, they specialise to collect one resource at a time: either nectar or pollen. Specialising and focusing on one resource at a time helps bees more easily recognise the best flowers.


Second, bees look for and remember which flower species is the most rewarding. This can change over time. Once a bee finds a good flower, she collects resources and returns to the hive, and dances to tell other members of her colony where to find the flower so they can go and collect more resources from it. To motivate other bees to find the correct flower patch, the dancing bee shares a sample of nectar she collected with them.


She does this by regurgitating a sample of the nectar that was stored in her honey stomach for them to taste. These watchers also smell the scent of the flower on the dancing bees’s hind end. These clues help the watching bees locate the correct flower patch outside the hive.


Round dance

The round dance tells the watching bees only one thing about the flower patch’s location: that it is somewhere close to the hive. In this dance, the bee walks in a circle, turns around, then walks the same circle in the opposite direction. She repeats this many times. Sometimes, the bee includes a little waggle as she’s turning around. The duration of this waggle is thought to indicate the quality of the flower patch she has found. Although the direction is not determined, the bees can figure out where and what flower to look for based on their sense of smell.


Waggle dance

The vibrating dance, called the waggle dance describing an eight form, is meant to indicate the existence of distant food. The dancing bee waggles back and forth as she moves forward in a straight line, then circles around to repeat the dance. The length of the middle line, called the waggle run, shows roughly how far it is to the flower patch.


In this configuration, the direction of the food source relative to the Sun is indicated by the angle of the straight line with the vertical, and the length of the straight section and the intensity of the vibration are the distance.

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