PHOTO: Paul Rollings/Flickr
Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
February 14, 2017

The healthy honeybee colony functions as a buzzing, whirring, well-oiled machine. In the peak of summer, a productive hive would have members numbering in the tens of thousands—anywhere between 50,000 and 60,000 members is considered a strong, mature colony. Everyone in the hive has a job to do, and each does it effectively. Every single 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 entire colony to complete tasks, safeguard against potential threats, and thrive as the “superorganism” that they are. There are many forms of communication that honeybees utilize, and each one is fascinating. Here are eight amazing things that every beekeeper or bee enthusiast should know about honeybee communication.

1. Left In The Dark

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. Dinner Conversation

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 will make 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 If the queen were to perish, or be superceded, the entire hive would know within about 48 hours as well.

4. Nose In The Air

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, of course, 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

Foragers returning from the field communicate to others with 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. Homeward Bound

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 off 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, learning about, and fascinated by the way honeybees communicate. In a family unit of tens of thousands of individuals, they manage to share precise information, make big decisions that effect their entire colony, and support one another for the good of the greater whole. It’s fair to say we could learn a lot from the individual honeybee and her social unit.

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