When it comes to colonies of bees, teamwork is key to their survival. But how do bees communicate with each other? How do they let each other know if there is a threat to the hive or where the best place to forage can be found?
How Do Bees ‘Talk’?
Bees do not have a language in the way that humans or some animals do. What they do use to communicate or ‘talk’ to each other is movement and odor signals.
In order to find suitable foraging sites, scout bees are sent from the hive. Once they find a food source, these bees must fly back to the hive to communicate the location of the foraging site to the other worker bees. But how do they do this?
In communicating with the other bees, the scouts perform what is known as the ‘waggle dance’. This involves a series of precise movements that will tell the other bees where the nectar is. It begins with a straight walk on the honeycomb. During this walk, the scout bee will shake its abdomen vigorously and will make a buzzing sound while beating its wings. How fast the bee moves and the distance of the walk, will inform the other workers of how far away the foraging site is from the hive.
The scout bee must now communicate the direction of the food source and it does this by aligning its body in the direction of the food in relation to the position of the sun. This dance pattern resembles a figure eight.
When communicating food sources within fifty meters of the hive, the bee will perform a round dance, which is a combination of circular movements. These narrow movements indicate nectar within fifty meters of the hive but does not indicate the direction of the food.
For food sources between fifty and 150 meters away, the bee does a sickle dance, which involves a pattern of crescent-shaped moves.
How Do Bees Use Smell to Communicate?
Bees also communicate with each other through odor. They release chemical odors known as pheromones when trying to convey certain messages to each other. One of the more common pheromones released by bees is known as the ‘alarm’ pheromone, which is released when a bee uses its stinger.
Honey bees will only use their stinger if they are threatened and only as a last resort as they know that doing so means certain death. Their stingers are barbed and remain in the skin of humans and animals after they have been stung. When the bee tries to fly away, the stinger is ripped from its body, pulling some of its abdomen away with it. The bee cannot survive these injuries and will soon die. However, as it dies, it releases a chemical scent that alerts other bees to the threat it has just faced.
The alarm pheromone triggers a defensive responsive in the other bees and they become agitated. They may then gather forces to protect the hive. This is why people and animals that disturb a hive often suffer multiple stings and is the reason why beekeepers use smokers which, among other things, masks the scent of the alarm pheromone when working at their hives.
The queen bee also uses pheromones that help to maintain order within the hive. The odors she releases stop female worker bees from mating with male drones. She also releases pheromones during her mating flight to encourage drones to mate with her. Her scent keeps the worker bees busy in the hive taking care of different jobs such as nursing larvae, building honeycomb, and making honey. When a queen dies or swarms, the loss of her pheromones is a sign that a new queen must be raised.
Bees use very sophisticated methods to communicate with one another. Scout bees perform a waggle dance to inform other bees in the hive where a source of food has been found. This allows the other bees to quickly find nectar and pollen.
Worker bees also use pheromones to alert the colony to danger, and the queen bee releases a chemical scent that maintains order within the hive.