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Since bees are unable to talk, they have had to develop other ways to communicate with one another. Communication between hive members is super important so that bees know where to find food, when a threat is nearby, and for things like mating.
So, how do bees communicate?
Bees use various methods of communication including touch and movement or body language. They also use pheromones including the infamous alarm pheromone when they detect a threat which can cause an entire hive to attack.
I’ve long been fascinated with the intelligence shown by bees within their methods of communication and I want to share a bit more about what I’ve learned over the years. So, this article will answer all of your most burning questions on bee communication.
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Bees might seem like insignificant creatures to most people. But for beekeepers and those with a passion for our winged friends, it’s easy to see the incredibly important role they play in our ecosystems.
What’s more, bees are far more intelligent than most people would give them credit for and, just like you and I, they need to communicate with one another in order to survive. In fact, bees are very social creatures and live in colonies with each member playing an important and active role. Without effective communication, the colony, which is sometimes made up of tens of thousands of individuals, would never thrive.
Bees will use their various methods of communication to tell other members of the hive where there is food. The job of some bees, the foragers, is to go out and find food. Once they discover a food source, they’ll let the other bees know in the form of a waggle dance (more on that later.)
They also need to communicate to let other members of the colony know when danger is near. The problem with being such a tight-knit group is that once a predator takes down a small portion of the hive, the rest will soon follow. It’s imperative to their very survival that bees are able to alert one another of a potential threat. That’s why they can be seen swarming as they’ll go into battle as a team!
Another reason that communication is important between bees is so that the whole colony is aware of the ever-changing environmental conditions. Temperature plays a very important role in the survival of the honey bee colony. When it drops, the hive will go dormant and bees will be nowhere near as active. In some cases, there is a need to migrate when things get too chilly so it’s essential for bees to be able to communicate these changes with one another.
There are three main ways that bees communicate with one another. Each of them serves its own purpose and can be used in different ways. I’m going to go into more depth on the various methods of bee communication later in this guide, but if you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick overview.
One of the ways that bees communicate is through pheromones. They have different types which all carry different meanings. For example, if the bee needs to use its stinger it will release a certain alarm pheromone which alerts other members of the hive.
The waggle dance is a seriously cute method of communication among bees. This has been studied in depth by a guy named Karl von Frisch who determined that the main reason for this dancing is to let other bees know where nectar can be found. The dance moves even show other bees how far away the food is.
When forager bees are out and about looking for nectar, they’ll often carry the scent of flowers back to the hive so that other bees can follow it and collect more food.
One of the most important ways that bees communicate with each other is through pheromones. Pheromones are released from all animals and in humans, their scent helps newborn babies detect their mothers whereas other pheromones help us to subconsciously attract a mate.
Where bees are concerned, mating is one of the key roles of pheromones and it’s the queen bee that uses them this way. She stays in the hive and emits pheromones that will ensure the other females continue working. However, these same pheromones attract the male drones who will come to mate with her.
Out of all of the bees in a hive, the queen has her own unique scent. If you are a beekeeper and want to introduce a new queen, then it’s really important that you keep the queen in a separate cage for the first few days. This allows the other bees to get used to her scent.
As well as for mating purposes, bees also use pheromones to defend the hive. Bees will only sting when they feel threatened as they will suffer a very traumatic death once they do. However, this isn’t in vain as once they sting, they release an alarm pheromone that tells the rest of the hive that danger is afoot.
While dancing is the main form of communication where finding food is concerned, bees will also use their pheromones to tell others where to locate nectar. As I briefly mentioned earlier, there has been evidence to show that some bees will carry the scent of flowers with them when they return to the hive. Some scientists believe that these scents have to be present in order for the waggle dance to work so these two methods of communication are combined into one.
It’s amazing how bees will use pheromones to communicate with other members of the hive. What’s even more incredible is that the different pheromones will alert other bees to different things. In order to fully understand bee communication, we first need to understand what they’re trying to tell each other and how.
- Brood recognition pheromones are released by bees in the larval and pupal stages in order to let the other bees know that there are developing babies within the hive.
- Drone pheromones are released when the male drones are in flight and serve to let other drones know where there may be mating opportunities.
- Egg marking pheromones are used by the nurse bees who use them to tell who laid which eggs: the female worker bees or the queen.
- Nasonov pheromones are released by the worker bees when they are recruiting new members of the colony.
If you’ve ever spent time observing your bees, you may have noticed them doing some kind of dance. This is not for fun and is actually a viable method of communication known as the waggle dance.
What’s really interesting is that bees are able to use this dance to alert other hive members to food sources as far away as 150 meters from their hive! When the forager bees fly out to scout for food, they will come back and perform their dance to let other bees know exactly where to go.
And there’s a very specific pattern to the dance in order for it to be effective. The bee will walk directly ahead at the same time as shaking the abdomen. It’ll also beat its wings which causes that signature buzzing sound we all know and love. The bee is able to tell others how far the food is by altering the speed of its movements.
But what really blows my mind is how the bee uses this dance to show others which direction to fly in. The bee will point its body towards the food in relation to the location of the sun. That’s super intelligent for a creature whose brain is just two cubic millimeters. To put that into perspective, that’s around 0.0002% the size of a human brain!
While the waggle dance is often performed using a figure of eight movements, the bees will also perform a round waggle dance using small circular motions. They do this when the food source is much closer, typically within 50 meters of the hive. The figure of eight dance sometimes called the sickle dance, is used when the food is further away.
While professor Karl von Frisch has studied the waggle dance over recent decades, it was not he who first recorded this phenomenon. In fact, we can go back as far as 330 BC when Aristotle noted how honey bees danced.
While pheromones, scent, and movement are the most common methods of communication among bees, they also ‘speak’ to one another using touch.
They use their antennae to pass on information to other bees and they do this by touching them to the other bee. This allows bees to identify one another but also lets them tell others about changes to the environment such as wind speed and temperature.
Additionally, bees use their feet as a way of measuring the size of the comb cells.
If you spend some time watching bees, you’ll see how truly fascinating they are. These animals might be small but they’re super smart and can communicate with one another in some very interesting ways.
How do bees communicate? Well, they mainly use pheromones or dancing but they’re also known to use their sense of touch. However, they communicate, one thing is for sure; bees really know how to work together!