How Do Honey Bees Communicate?

kristen and beesHoney bees belong to the scientific classification order Hymenoptera. Maybe you remember a guy from your middle school science class named Carolus Linnaeus? Linnaeus was a botanist who lived during the 1700’s. He is credited with the development of the modern system of species classification lovingly referred to as binomial nomenclature. Now binomial nomenclature sounds super fancy and hard to understand but it really just means two name system (genus and species) like Homo sapien. Although our modern scientific system of biological classification has roots in Linnaeus’s original system it has greatly evolved. The current system of classification includes; domain – kingdom – phylum – class – order – family – genus – species moving from most general to most specific categories. The order Hymenoptera includes wasps, bees, and ants among others. The insects that make up the order Hymenoptera exhibit some very unique and special qualities! Many wasp, bee, and ant species maintain a very strict social structure that revolves around very sophisticated forms of communication.

Honey bees, like many other Hymenoptera species, establish colonies that require social structure and communication in order to function and be prolific. In general, we can organize the individual members of a honey bee colony into three groups, queen bees, worker bees, and drones. However, within the “worker bee” grouping there are many sub-groupings based exclusively on duty or function. Think of a bee hive as a super-organism where all members work together for a higher purpose, the overall health of the hive or colony. The health of the colony supersedes the health of the individual. With up to 100,000 individual members within a single colony, methods of communication must be very precise and efficient. A large percent of honey bee communication is accomplished using a class of chemicals called pheromones.

A pheromone is a type of hormone that when released elicits a specific response from other members of the same species. The release of a specific pheromone is a call to specific action. Honey bees have a very complex chemical communication system. In Fact, honey bees have one of the most elaborate and intricate pheromonal networking systems in all of nature! So here’s the idea, say one individual worker bee identifies a threat to the hive or colony, she needs to communicate this information to as many members of the hive as possible. At this point, the worker bee will release an alarm pheromone that will generate a specific response by the other members of the hive. This communication happens very quickly so that the response seems to happen immediately and in a highly coordinated fashion. When an alarm pheromone is detected worker bees will rush to the location of the intruder prepared for a fight! I have witnessed this process first hand as the intruder and, believe me, this display is quite intimidating!

bees on combThe alarm pheromones are just one category of honey bee pheromones among many. Honey bees use pheromones to coordinate other activities such as egg laying, nursing of baby bees, finding nectar sources, orienting in space, and control of swarming behavior to name just a few. Without phermonal communication, the hive would be plunged into chaos, sort of like when the network goes down at the office!

Chemical communication allows the entire hive to function as a unit, a well-oiled machine. Beekeepers use a tool called a smoker to disrupt the transfer of phermonal messages. A smoker might very well be a beekeepers best friend, especially when the alarm pheromone is being released! A honey bee colony is one of the most amazing communities on our planet. The organization and the cooperation of the colony is truly a fantastic model for any community and just another great way we can learn from a highly evolved natural system.

 

Submitted By: Brantley Crowder

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