How Do Bees Communicate?

how do bees communicate hive
Honey bees 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. Indeed, when bees communicate, it is focused on sharing specific 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 to the other bees in the colony.

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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.

     

    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?

    Bees have to be in constant communication with each other for the good of the colony. As bees explore the flora around the hive, they are coming back to the colony to share the good news with the other workers.

    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 is a research topic with a long history. Aristotle is credited with observing bees and their movements back in 350 BC and writing a guide on bees. However, Karl von Frisch further enhanced findings on bee communication with his own study.

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

    Von Frisch realized that the dance isn’t just bees moving around aimlessly. It has a specific set of purposes, which is fascinating when you realize how many bees are in the colony.

    Thousands of bees have to work together to ensure the survival of bee larvae as well as the queen bee. Karl von Frisch realized that the bees dance to inform each other about food sources as well as 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 the information as quickly as possible to the hive so that workers can step in and help out. This dance involves a figure-eight type of pattern, rapid moving of wings, and a certain length of time. The longer the dance, the better the food source is that the worker bee found.

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

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

    The word pheromone comes from the Greek words pherin (transmit) and hormone (excite). Simply, pheromones are signal scents that bees secrete in order to transmit information to others in the hive. Here are a few pheromones to consider in the world of bees:

    • There are guard bees in a hive that 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.
    • 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 scent.
    • 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 can determine the differences between the pheromones.

    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. This means that the other members of the hive know that she’s still in charge. 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 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.

    Bees can get lots of information sent back and forth to members of the hive with ease. Bees use their antennae to submit important information about their environment, such as temperature, wind speed, gravity, and more. There are easily thousands of sensory receptors on each antenna.

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