How Do Bees Communicate?

Bees performing the waggle dance outside of their hive to communicate with others
Honey bees performing the waggle dance in front of the hive entrance

Bee communication, at its core, is all about the good of the hive, not the individual bee.

When bees communicate, they share information that either leads to increased nectar collection or better processing of the available nectar into honey for the hive.

Bees communicate by moving in specific patterns, beating their wings rapidly to make noise, and releasing pheromones for the other bees in the colony.

Recently we spoke to Dr. Jürgen Tautz, who shared and explained the updated understanding of honey bee communication. 

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    What Are the Primary Methods of Bee Communication?

    Bee communication is complex and absolutely essential to the survival of the colony. There are three primary methods of bee communication:

    • Strong smells: Bees release pheromones to communicate. Each specific pheromone has a meaning, such as when bees have to use their stinger. The action of stinging triggers information being sent to other bees in the colony.
    • The waggle dance: The bee “dance” studied by Karl von Frisch comes to life in bees for a few specific reasons. The bees are signalling to each other through dance where to find more nectar, which is the key to producing honey for the colony. The dance can even transmit information on how far away the new food source is from the colony, important for distributing work through the hive.
    • Scent memory: Bees carry the scent of other flowers with them back to the hive, assisting the other workers in being able to find the new food source.
    • Dynamic Antennal Positioning: Prof. Barbara Webb and Post-graduate Researcher Anna Hadjitofi conducted studies of bees performing the waggle dance using high-definition video to break down the dance into its individual components. During this study, they discovered a correlation between the antennal position and the relative body axes of dancer and follower bees, Suggesting that antennal positioning is used by follower bees to help decode the dance. 

    The intersection of scent, pheromones, and dance come together to give a clear picture of not only bee communication but how the hive protects itself and the growing bee population to come. Multiple generations of bees survive through these communication mechanisms.

    What Do Bees Communicate to Each Other?

    As bees explore the flora and area surrounding their hive, they come back to the colony to deliver resources they may have discovered during their journey, but also to inform other workers of the location where resources are discovered. 

    To disclose the location of the resource discovered (foraging site or potential nesting site), worker bees begin a waggle dance, which can be carried out for an individual or multiple recruit bees.  

    The waggle dance provides directional information, and information on the quality of the resource to the recruits, who then load up on honey and set out on their discovery flight, beginning the ‘Wenner Phase’, which can be read about here.

    Temperature changes can affect the entire colony, so those are also shared with the others. Bees are very sensitive to temperature and will migrate if the outside temperature gets too hot or too cold.

    how do bees communicate
    Waggle dance is one of the main types of communoication methods used by bees

    Who Discovered That Bees Communicate by Dancing?

    Bee communication has been studied and observed for a long time and dates back to Aristotle in 350 BC.

    Aristotle is credited with observing bees and their movements and writing a bee guide.

    However, Karl von Frisch further enhanced bee communication findings with his lifelong study (1886-1982) on their behaviours. 

    Where Aristotle could only speculate from his observations, von Frisch looked deeper into how bees communicate. He realized that bees communicate complex information by dancing, disclosing the quality of the nectar source or potential hive location the worker bee discovered. 

    Von Frisch realized that the dance wasn’t just bees moving around aimlessly. Instead, it provides multiple pieces of information to help the recruit bees (those observing the dance) to discover the resource themselves.

    Thousands of bees have to work together to ensure the survival of bee larvae and the queen bee. Karl von Frisch realized that the bees dance to inform each other about food sources and the need to go out and forage for more food.

    How Do Bees Communicate by Dance?

    Bees communicate through dance with “the waggle dance.”

    The waggle dance is designed to transmit information as quickly as possible to observing bees so that they can help out.

    During the dance, the foraging bee (dancer) moves in a figure-eight type of pattern, with rapid movement of its wings and antennae. Dance lengths are not standardised and can be short or long.

    Typically speaking, the longer the dance, the better the food source that the worker bee found.

    The waggle dance isn’t the only dance of the bee; there are two dances. The tremble dance signals to other workers that it’s time to help process more nectar, and can also be a signal to the other workers that there is so much honey that more foraging members of the hive are needed.

    What Happens Post Waggle Dance - A New Understanding

    Bee expert and animal behaviourist Dr. Jürgen Tautz explains in his book Communication Between Honeybees: More than Just a Dance in the Dark, that a new model of honey bee communication needs to be understood and adopted. 

    Jürgen provides crucial information on what happens after the waggle dance and how bees actually end up arriving at the location disclosed by the foraging bee carrying out the dance. 

    The waggle dance provides recruit bees with a vague location of the area they need to visit, then afterwards, there are three important phases that lead to the discovery of the food site or potential nesting area the foraging bee advertised:

    Phase 1: Sent

    Any recruit bees that received the information provided during the foraging bees waggle dance leave the hive and head in the direction and distance disclosed by the waggle dance. 

    New recruits of the dance load themselves up with three-to-four times as much honey to fuel their first flight to the disclosed location since it can take them up to 50 times longer (and sometimes more) to arrive at the destination than the dancer takes to get there!

    Once they believe to have reached the correct area, recruit bees enter phase two of the search.

    Phase 2: Search

    Now at the approximate search area disclosed by their fellow foraging bee the recruit bees begin to search for the resource. 

    The location, shape and extent of the area they scour is directly influenced by the weather conditions as well as the motivation of the recruits. 

    Phase 3: Attraction

    During the search phase, if recruits discover the scent of the flowers detected on the dancer or the pheromones released by the dancer in the field, they’ll then orient towards and arrive at the resource/site location, where they can begin work. 

    Dr. Jürgen Tautz states that the waggle dance stage should be called the ‘von Frisch phase’.

    Then the newly understood third stage should be known as the ‘Wenner phase’ since Adrian Wenner and his co-workers spent much time studying and observing the scent-guided target finding.

    What Are Pheromones and How Do Bees Use Them for Communication?

    The word pheromone comes from the Greek words pherin (transmit) and hormone (excite).

    Pheromones are signal scents that bees secrete in order to transmit information to others in the hive. 

    Here’s how pheromones play a role in some aspects of life for bees:

    • Each hive’s guard bees check for a certain pheromone to be present for all bees in that particular colony. This means that other bees without those scents are considered outsiders and denied access. This pheromone allows guards to detect robber bees which prevents them from entering the hive and stealing its resources.

    • A new queen has to be kept with an old colony for nearly five days in order for the workers to get used to her pheromonal scent.

    • The alarm pheromone is used to alert and immobilize bees to possible threats to the hive. The alarm pheromone is so strong that beekeepers have to use smoke in order to keep the bees calm. 

    Bees have ten times as many scent receptors as they do taste receptors, which makes it clear that pheromones play a strong role in the day-to-day life of bees. 

    Western Honey Bees Pollinating Common Milkweed
    A specific alarm pheromone released by bees smells like bananas

    Fun Fact:

    Bees aren’t the only creatures that emit pheromones, but their pheromones are special in the sense that each one has a slightly different scent.

    It is said that the alarm pheromone released by bees smells like bananas, while the pheromones produced by a new queen focused on attracting males to mate smells lemony.

    These are what humans associate with those pheromones, but bees will understand the different meaning of each pheromone.

    What Does the Queen Bee Communicate Through Pheromones?

    The queen bee has one job in the colony: to continue laying eggs. The next generation of bees are coming from her efforts, so it’s the responsibility of the entire colony to protect her. She also takes part in the hive through communication. Her pheromones are very strong and signal to the others a few particular messages.

    The most important pheromone of the queen bee is the one that signals she is alive and well. This pheromone is called the queen mandibular pheromone (QMP) and contains carboxylic acids as well as aromatic compounds.

    The QMP pheromone informs the other members of the hive that she’s still in charge and is healthy. The workers will gather around the queen and take care of her through this powerful signalling.

    QMP also affects the hive’s social behaviour, swarming, hive maintenance, and inhibition of ovary development in worker bees. QMP effect can be released short-term or long-term.

    bee cleaning its antennae
    Honey bees use their long antennae to communicate information about their environment including temperature and wind speed

    What Roles Do Pheromones Play in Hive Defence?

    Pheromones play multiple roles in the bee world, especially when it comes to hive defense:

    • These unique scent cues can tell the hive when the queen bee is no longer able to keep laying eggs, and it is time to raise up a new queen.

    • Pheromones also come into play when the current hive is no longer suitable, and worker bees must find a new place for the colony to live.

    • Pheromones also come into play when bees have to sting to protect themselves, sounding a silent alarm that springs other bees into action.

    Some specific types of pheromones found in the bee world include:

    Alarm pheromone This is released when a bee stings another animal, alerting nearby bees.
    Brood recognition pheromone This is released by larvae and pupae to let worker bees know that the hive currently has developing young, thus preventing the worker bees from bearing new offspring.
    Drone pheromone This is released by flying male drone bees to attract other drones to suitable mating sites.
    Egg-marking pheromone This helps nurse bees distinguish between eggs laid by workers and those laid by the queen.
    Nasonov pheromone This is emitted by worker bees during the orientation and recruitment of new bees.

    These pheromones are extremely important not only for hive defence but the successful continuation of the colony as a whole. As bees help us pollinate major sources of food, keeping a colony safe from threats is incredibly important.

    How Do Bees Use Their Antennae to Communicate?

    Every part of the bee is designed for communication, from those characteristic wings to their antennae. Speaking of antennae, bees have very long antennae for communication purposes.

    During the waggle dance, bees use their antennae to help communicate with members of the hive. Using their antennae bees submit supplementary information to follower bees to help them decode the dance and understand their message.

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