How Do Bees Communicate?
Although bees are very intelligent creatures, obviously they can’t speak. That bee we usually see in cartoons, buzzing words out, is far from reality. Bees have, however, other ways of communicating, and today we’re going to explore those methods.
Different Communication Methods Used by Bees
Believe it or not, bees have a few ways to communicate. Bee communication is, unfortunately, still a bit of an unknown subject for some species. The species most closely studied is the honeybee.
Bees use communication for many things—not so much for conversation purposes—more in a sense of directions and mating. Here’s what they may do.
Dance is mostly used by honeybees, and it’s rather fascinating. Honeybees have different roles within the hive. The older honeybees are scouts, which means that they’re the ones flying out in search of food and water sources.
Once a scout discovers an ample food source, she quickly returns to the hive to pass on the directions to her sisters. Back in the hive, our scout will perform either a waggle dance or a round dance to communicate the location. They’ll do this across the middle of the honeycomb, among the forager bees.
The scout bees are rather clever—if the source is close to the hive, the scout performs a round dance. She will walk in a close circle, vibrating her wings at specific intervals and pulses to indicate the exact distance.
If the source is at a further distance, the scout bee will do the waggle dance. This dance is a little different, since the bee will now walk in figure-of-eight formation. The bee will make half a circle, then cut through the middle while wiggling her body, before continuing another half circle.
This is where it gets a bit complicated—are you ready? If the food source is toward the sun, the bee will do the waggle part of the dance up the honeycomb. If the source is away from the sun, the waggle dance is performed downward.
The waggle portion can also be performed left or right, indicating the food source is east or west. The dancing bees will also secrete a specific scent that triggers more forager bees to follow their directions.
Then, as the first team of foragers returns, they bring back some of that scent which tells more bees to go. It’s a bit complicated, but it shows just how intelligent bees are.
Although honeybees also use pheromones to communicate, let’s focus on bumblebees. So, honeybees mostly use dance to communicate, but bumblebees are known to secrete pheromones, or chemical compounds.
When the forager bumblebee has found an abundant food source and returns to the nest, it will run across the comb. It does a few series of runs throughout the nest while fanning its wings.
This run somehow excites the other workers, but it’s the pheromones released that causes them to pay attention. As the bee fans its wings, scents from the place it returned from are being spread through the air. The unoccupied bees then get an urge to follow that trail of scent back to the flowers with that same scent.
This method is not as thorough as the dance that honeybees do. The pheromones will only tell the bees which type of flower it is, not its exact location. The chemical will basically only tell the other workers that they should go out to forage.
The queen bumblebee is also known for using her pheromones to dominate over her workers. She releases specific pheromones that dictate how the workers should tend to the eggs. These pheromones will, at the same time, suppress the ovaries in the workers so they can’t produce any eggs.
Vibration and Sound
Solitary bees use other ways to communicate. This is probably because they have no need to communicate foraging sites to their fellow workers since they live alone. So instead, they may use vibrations and sounds to communicate with potential mates or to scare off predators.
Solitary bees generally live underground, where females dig tunnels for their offspring. The females digging underground will create buzzing vibrations which the males use as clues to find them.
During mating, the male will also create a faint buzz. This is believed to enhance the female bee’s receptivity.
These bees will also use their buzz when in danger. This is something we can see, for example, with the male carpenter bees. They will readily make a loud and intense buzz when people come too close to their nest.
Solitary bees, whether male or female, will produce a broadband buzz when inhibited from moving. This is perhaps, again, to scare off predators.
Bees have a number of ways to communicate—they use dance, vibrations, sounds, and even pheromones. With a simple figure of eight dance, one honeybee can direct other bees to abundant foraging sites. Still, when it comes to bee communication, it seems that we’ve only just scratched the surface of what these pollinators can do.