Hive Mentality: VT Researchers Decode “Bee Speak"

Apr 5, 2019

 Researchers say bees are the only creatures, besides humans, that can communicate complex messages to each other. The language they use is dance. And what they’re dancing about is food, and where it’s located. A team of researchers at Virginia Tech is learning to translate what they’re saying.

Researchers put tiny tags on 85 bees to track their travels. While they're at their feeder, they remain docile, so it's easy to tag them, says PI Roger Schurch. "They don't seem to mind."
Credit Virginia Tech

It’s known as the "waggle dance.”  It's when bees fly a series of loops and turns to signal to their sisters in the hive where a new food source is. Virginia Tech Assistant Professor of Entomology Roger Schürch is leading a team of researchers who are translating the bee dance into a language human researchers can understand.

Their newest research finds that there's a sort of universal language danced by bees everywhere when they're communicating about a food source. “We now know that the bees communicate these locations through a vector. They give a direction and a distance.  Earlier studies show that if bees have been flying in a hay meadow, they communicate differently than if they flew around, say, a brick building.”

To study how they communicate, researchers are marking individual bees with tiny tags and training them to go to a certain food source and report back.

Margaret Couvillon is assistant professor of entomology, also working on the project.  “Our overall goal is to find out where bees are finding food in the landscape, so we can make inferences about where it’s good and not as good, what time of year is it easier and when is it harder.”

For any type of conservation work, researchers need to know how and where an organism eats. “Instead of putting a transponder on the back of a whale,” says Couvillon, “we’re just tapping into this communication system, because the bees are telling each other where they’ve gone.”

In the 1970s, an Austrian ecologist won the Nobel Prize for identifying the waggle dance by confirming  that honey bees communicate with each other by flying in specific patterns.  Schürch and Couvillon point out, “it’s one of the few Nobel Prize winning discoveries that you can actually see with the eye.”  So, when the bees are communicating to each other, the researches can eaves drop on their communications. “And while a successful forager is telling her nest mates, ‘there is something really good at this direction and this distance,’ we can figure out that direction and that distance and therefore know where they have gone to eat.”

Kind of like “Yelp!” for Bees. 

The next step in their study is to set up three up test sites to see what challenges the bees face finding food in the landscape.“Bees forage for a long time; from March to almost November,” says Couvillon.  “If you have to give them supplemental food for all that time, that’s a huge effort, but if we find at all three sites that say, one month it’s difficult to find food, that’s valuable, because now we can target when supplemental feeding can be given.”

Now that the team has come up with a way for the the bees can tell them where the food is, the information could drive land management  and agrigultural policy and  provide ideas for home gardeners about when and where to plant flowers to support pollinators of all kinds.

Their paper is in the April issue of 'Animal Behavior.'

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences team's work is supported by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.

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