Honeybees are social insects, living in a close-knit community. Like animals and people, they communicate with each other. We know dolphins communicate via sonar, bumping, body language and a series of clicks and whistles at various pitches. Elephants express themselves through a variety of vocal calls as well as smell, visual and tactile expressions. The tiny honeybee might use the most sophisticated communication system other than humans.
Dr. Karl von Frisch studied the complex language of bees for decades before winning the 1973 Nobel Prize for deciphering the meaning of their multifaceted communication avenues. The behavior was first noted and recorded as early as 330 B.C. by Aristotle.
A honeybee colony consists of one queen and all her offspring — hundreds of male drones and up to 80,000 female workers. Only queens reproduce and can lay between 1,000 and 2,000 eggs a day. Drones fly off to reproduce with other young queens to start new colonies. Worker bees are unable to produce fertilized eggs. Once they become adults, worker bees are tasked with foraging for pollen and nectar.
A complex communication system enables a hive to gather pollen and nectar when food is available during limited bloom periods. They use a combination of touch, movement, smell and sound to identify location of food sources, possible new hive sites and potential dangers.
Their extraordinarily sensitive antennae enable them to detect odors and identify other bees. Each hive has its own scent, enabling family members to recognize each other.
They can even use their antennae to detect the faint scent other bees leave after flying before them. This allows them to follow a specific path to locate confirmed nectar and pollen sources. Honeybees can fly more than a mile in search of food, averaging up to 15 miles per hour.
Scout bees leave the colony charged with finding nectar, food and water.
Nectar is a key liquid food source, luring bees and providing sugar, vitamins, salts and oils, and is used to make honey.
Microscopic grains of plant pollen provide protein and carbohydrates that bees collect on hairy "baskets" on their legs as they forage. Pollen is used to feed bee larvae.
Water is used for drinking and cooling the hive. They use their wings to create evaporative cooling over the water.
Worker bees typically carry either nectar or pollen on foraging expeditions, though some bees collect both.
When they return to the hive, they regurgitate the nectar to other bees in the hive. Then the dancing begins.
A scout uses odor cues and a combination of movements — the round, sickle or waggle dances — to reenact her travel path and communicate directional information about food source location to other forager bees in the hive. The intensity of the dance distinguishes the quality of the food source. The better the prospective meal, the longer and more animated the dance.
The scout begins by dancing around in narrow circles, then reversing to the original course. This ritual round dance is said to provide distance information to fellow bees, but not directional data. It reveals information about food sources near to the hive.
For intermediate distances, she will act out the sickle dance, a crescent or figure eight-shaped series of steps that acts as a transitional element between longer distances.
To direct the foragers to more distant sources, the scout uses the waggle dance. This conveys both directional and distance/energy expenditure requirements to reach the source. Waggling while facing upward indicates the plants are located in the direction of the sun. Shifts in the angle of the scout during the dance reflect the change in the angle of the plant location as compared with the direction of the sun.
The dances convey direction, distance and odors of specific flowers they’ve located and recommend.
Odors and pheromones also play other key roles. The queen uses pheromones to encourage male drones to mate with her and to discourage sterile female workers from mating. When honeybees sting, they also release an odor warning other hive members of imminent danger.
Bees also communicate with sound, using a whooping noise that’s inaudible to human ears, as well as buzzing. Buzzing will increase in volume and force when bees are agitated or endangered. Calm bees buzz quietly and calmly as they go about their business.
Honeybee queens can live up to five years and produce more than a million offspring. Worker bees live about six weeks when born during summer, longer if born in fall. Drones usually live several months, then die immediately after mating.
Honeybees contribute approximately $20 billion to U.S. crop production through pollination. Bees gather nectar and pollen from flowers, collecting pollen from the stamen of one plant and carrying it via hairs on their legs to fertilize the pistil of another plant. Fertilized flowers then produce seeds, enabling the life cycle of the plant to continue.
A whole host of beautiful blooms provide nectar and pollen for honeybees and other pollinators in Central Texas. A collection of these trees, shrubs and other plants will encourage honeybees to visit your garden.
Landscape Designer Diana Kirby helps garden lovers by educating, designing and installing successful gardens. For in-person or social distance consulting follow her at dianasdesignsaustin.com , Diana’s Designs on Facebook or dianasdesignsaustin on Instagram.