Bees communicate using a wide range of pheromones, sounds, and movements, ranging from vibrating to dancing, as most good beekeeping books show. They use these communication methods to describe the precise location of the best foraging sites, as well as to keep their hierarchy and social life at the appropriate level.
All of these methods of communicating amongst bees ensure the long life and thriving of the entire colony. Even if a person would read most of the available books and articles on the topic, there is nothing that compares to their own experience of beekeeping.
When a beekeeper is able to personally observe the behavior and communication methods bees use, on a daily basis, only then will he/she completely understand these fascinating insects, that are so good for the entire planet.
There are several methods bees use to communicate with each other. Since they live in colonies of so many individuals, communication is of utmost importance to the survival of the hive. There are three main topics of communication amongst bees, which are finding a good feeding place, watching out for danger, or finding a better place to build a hive.
Bees are known to be extra sensitive to ultraviolet light, odors, tastes, and colors. They can also form cognitive maps of their surrounding areas, the best food sources within that area, adjust their foraging time to the flowering times of the day, and also, most importantly, communicate all this information to the other worker bees in the colony.
As said before, bees use quite a range of communication methods, such as dancing, pheromones communication and using vibration to communicate. All of these methods help them accurately describe the location of the best food sources, how far away they are, and what type of plants they consist of. They are just amazing like that.
Communication through dancing has been known as a common bee communication method as far back as Aristotle’s time, as he describes the behavior in his “Historia Animalium”. However, more recent findings showed that bee dancing is not only a way of getting all the attention in the hive when finding a good food source, as it was thought back in the day.
Dance communication, also known as the waggle dance, is actually an accurate description of the location, type, and distance from the hive of the food source. When doing the dance, the direction pointed by the position of the worker bee’s body on the honeycomb is an actual indication on the direction the food source is in, in direct relation to the position of the sun.
Also, how much the worker bee waggles her body while doing the dance, shows the other bees how far away this food source is. Moreover, the type of pollen and nectar the bee carries on her body upon returning into the hive will give accurate information about the type and quality of the foraging site she is pointing to through her dance.
Studies showed that this dancing behavior is genetically inherited, it is not something that a bee learns throughout her life from other worker bees. Also, it seems this type of behavior varies from species to species in terms of length, the order of the movements the bee makes, and the accuracy used to describe the foraging site.
Another interesting fact is that, sometimes, bees have been observed exchanging food as a way of showing the quality of the food source they found, but also as a way of exchanging enzymes and other substances needed for properly making beeswax, honey, royal jelly, and other wonderful things honey bees make within the colony.
Besides the dancing form of communication, pheromone-induced response as a way of communicating is one of the most commonly used communication methods among insects, bees in particular. Using pheromones represents one of the most advanced communication ways social insects developed over time.
Pheromones are chemical substances secreted by the exocrine glands of insects. They induce a physiological or behavioral response of an individual, or group of individuals, belonging to the same species. In honey bees, the targeted individuals are those of the same colony. However, in some cases, individuals of other colonies may be targeted for a response.
The way a honey bees colony is organized is so complex, it requires an equally complex communication system among its members to ensure all daily activities go smoothly and the hive continues to grow and thrive throughout time. Pheromones are one of the key factors in generating and maintaining the communication complexity within the colony.
Pheromones are involved in almost every activity the bee colony has on a daily basis, such as reproduction, foraging, defense, and orientation. All in all, the survival of the entire colony depends on how well the pheromone-based communication system works within the hive. Pheromones allow communication between all three honey bee types: drones, queen, workers.
Different types of pheromones
Honey bees, just like most other insects, release two types of pheromones, generating two different responses in the receiving individual. The first one is called primer pheromones and they trigger a physiological, long-term response, that will induce both developmental and behavioral changes in the receiver.
The second pheromones type is called releaser pheromones and they induce a shorter term response in the receiver. They have a weaker effect, inducing a simple and transitory response that affects the receiver at a behavioral level only. This type of pheromones does not induce any type of long-term changes in the receiving individual.
Queen pheromones are the ones acting as an activity regulator for the entire colony. The chemical blend released by the queen’s exocrine glands is also known as “the queen signal” and it acts as the main regulating factor of the hive. This chemical blend signal will induce physiological and behavioral changes in the worker bees.
This way the queen will maintain its supremacy, as the sole reproducing bee, while maintaining the worker bees sterile and well in the activity of caring for the entire colony. It is a known fact that when the queen bee gets old or sick, meaning her pheromone signal weakens, the entire hive becomes unorganized, dirty, and close to disappearing until a new queen is chosen.
Although every individual within the colony is important to the survival of the hive, without the pheromone-induced signal from the queen, the growth of the colony would not be possible. She is the one keeping the entire colony together, and every individual doing the appropriate job at the proper time. This way the queen, through her pheromone system, ensures the survival and growth of her colony.
In honey bee colonies, one of the simple, yet very effective ways of communication, are vibrations. The honey bees will choose to send out a clear message by shaking their bodies for one or two seconds, in a very specific way. They will do so as often as needed to get the message across the hive. This method is used by bees of all ages and all casts.
However, studies have shown that the vibration communication method is less used for signaling danger or a new food source, but rather for encouraging worker bees to work harder and faster at what they are doing. Worker bees sending a signal may choose to repeat the message every couple of minutes until the desired response of increased activity is received from the other worker bees in the colony.
This way of communication is sometimes called “good vibrations” because the worker bee sending out a message will not warn the others of danger, but rather encourage them to intensify their activity, which means more good things for the colony.