Researchers identify a Babel Fish for bees


Project reveals a honeybee universal language, regardless of location or subspecies. Tanya Loos reports.


Honeybees communicate the location of food by shaking their booties. Everyone understands the implications, apparently.

Andrew Blau/Getty Images

Scientists have created a codex which grants researchers worldwide a universal understanding of the honeybee “waggle dance”, even across different subspecies and habitats.

In research published in the journal Animal Behaviour, entomologists Roger Schürch and colleagues from Virginia Tech in the US present a new model for the calibration of the dance by the bee (Apis mellifera), that incorporates noise, or individual variation in bee behaviour.

The waggle dance was first described by ethologist Karl von Frisch more than 60 years ago. Since then it has been used by the scientific bee community to interpret how the insects communicate preferred forages and the location of these food sources.

But Schürch and colleagues knew that the von Frisch method, which is based on averages, was due for an update.

In 2014, while studying seasonal changes in bee foraging behaviour in the United Kingdom, Schürch and co-author Margaret Couvillon, a married couple, developed their own distance-duration calibration system using the honeybee subspecies A. mellifura mellifura. The method showed greater capacity to incorporate variation in foraging behaviour, underpinned by increasing understanding of bee intelligence.

“It takes a lot of time, effort, and expense to conduct this kind of study,” says Couvillon. “We decode dances by hand.”

Their exhaustive calibration process involves marking honeybees, videotaping their dances, and following the insects on the foraging journeys.

"What also makes our research different is that we trained many numbers of bees and followed them great distances,” adds Schürch. “You can train bees to go to a feeder and move it farther and farther away.”

After moving to the US, the pair joined other researchers in applying the same methodology of distance-duration calibration to another subspecies A. mellifera ligustica.

For the Virginia study, the team analysed the dances of 85 marked bees from three hives.

These results were then compared with other calibration studies, and while there were differences among populations in how they communicate, it doesn’t matter from the bees’ perspective, Schürch says.

“We cannot tell them apart in terms of how they translate this information,” he explains.

“There is huge overlap. In effect, a bee from England would understand a bee from Virginia and would find a food source in the same way with a similar success rate.”

Schürch and Couvillon then collated their data with all published similar studies to generate a universal calibration that incorporates the inter-individual and inter-study differences.

The results confirmed that their model acts as a "Babel Fish" – a reference to the universal translator fish species in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – enabling bee researchers to understand honeybee behaviour and ecological requirements universally.

“We think that this research can enable bees to be used as bio-indicators,” says Couvillon.

“The bees can tell us in high spatial and temporal resolution where forage is available and at what times of the year. So, if you want to build a mall for example, we would know if prime pollinator habitat would be destroyed. And, where bees forage, other species forage as well. Conservation efforts can follow.”

Explore #honeybees
  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000334721930017X?dgcid=author
  2. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0093495
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/jul/09/the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-by-douglas-adams-review
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/jul/09/the-hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy-by-douglas-adams-review
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