The last year has been about saving the bees. They’re responsible for just about everything natural in the supermarket. Without bees, we’d be in real trouble. But aside from that, very little is know about bees. So here’s some interesting facts. Bees have the ability of perceiving colors (even UV), tastes and even odors (including pheremones). They have the ability to learn to distinguish colors through classic and operant learning. They are smart enough to adjust their times at which to forage to when the most food is available and even create cognitive maps of their immediate area. While these are nothing short of extraordinary abilities, worker bees have long perplexed scientists with another mystery.
Shortly after tracking bees, scientists were baffled. They noticed that after finding a food source, a bee would fly back to its nest, then, minutes later, a group of different bees would fly in an almost identical path to the exact location of the food source. At first, naturally, they thought it was a coincidence. Or perhaps this was a well known source, or maybe they just had a way of sensing where it was. However, this happened over and over again. New bees that have not been in that area before, would navigate flawlessly to the food source. It seemed like they either had the Google Maps edition for bees or they had a way of communicating exactly where the food was. This was an incredible discovery and the beginning of the unraveling of the insane communication power of bees.
After returning from a plentiful food source, a bee would perform a series of coordinated movements known as the “waggle dance”. This dance would pin point the exact location, including distance and direction. It would be performed on the vertical surface of the honey comb. The bee would begin moving in a series of left- and right-hand loops (similar to a figure eight). With the end of each loop the bee would waggle her abdomen from side to side. While this would be seen as totally random to an unsuspecting eye, these movements actually indicated an incredible amount of information.
The angle at which the waggle was performed and the vertical direction represented the angle between the sun and the direction in which the other bees had to fly in order to reach the food source! If the would source was close, the dance would not contain any waggle phases. That kind of dance became known as “round dance”. This type of dance does not tell the directions but does tell the other bees that the food source is very close.
Now we know that bees need about five visits to the new food location before learning the route very well. The bee then communicates directions to other bees and recruits them for foraging. But here’s how intelligent the bees are – they only do this if the food source is sufficiently nutritious AND if it’s worth the energy that will be expanded to get to the source. I can think of more than one human that has spend $15 in gas and an hour of their time to save $10 on an item that is on sale. Just saying.
So how exactly are they able to learn the directions and know the distance? It’s quite complex, but essentially they sense how much the image of the world has moved. They collect and combine information along their route. They also use a similar technique to us when we give directions. What’s the best way to tell someone where to turn if they don’t know the area? Give them landmarks or noticeable objects, like a gas station, statue or the fat cat that looks like Garfield (actually got that one and it did help). Bees use the same kind of system and acquire visual snapshots, or as kids know it today – Snapchats – at different points along the way. These help to measure the distance from the nest.
Bees are not limited to this method, as they can also measure the distance by counting the total number of these landmarks on their route. It seems that they can remember a maximum of four.
To signal their routes they use the dances we mentioned above. But the same communication methods can also be used for other things. For example, a bee in the colony can use the same method to “beg” and request a sample of the food that the dancing bee just brought in. There are also signals to request a collection of the nectar and even a stop signal. The stop signal is interesting because a bee can head-butt a dancing bee to stop it from its embarrassing style of dancing or more likely, to tell it that there are enough foragers out of the nest already and sometimes to warn about a potential predator in the area.
Essentially, bees have used directions before Google Maps, snapshots before Snapchat and head-butts before Zinadine Zidane. Incredible. All the more reason to save our lovely bees!