By Missy Weiss, Environmental Educator at Group for the East End
I have always had a fascination with bees. While walking my dog a few weeks ago, I noticed a honeybee (Apis mellifera) hive hanging from a low-lying tree branch. I stopped and gazed at it for what felt like hours. I could see the buttery-colored honeycombs dangling from the branch, and the many yellow and black honeybees huddled tightly together blanketing the outside of the hive. Perhaps it was the time of day or the cool temperature, but the bees appeared surprisingly calm.
As a child playing on the playground, I can vividly recall watching my classmates scream and panic whenever a bee buzzed too closely by. Their arms and legs waved in the air in what resembled some kind of strange interpretive dance. I often wondered why they were so scared of these tiny insects. I have never had that fear.
In fact, all I have ever had for honeybees is great respect. The honeybee is a fascinating example of insect behavior. These social organisms live in associations where their survival is dependent on mutual cooperation and the division of labor. A true matriarchal society, the queen bee (reproductive female) rules and controls all of her offspring (drones and workers).1
The drones are male honeybees with the sole duty to mate with the queen. The physical mating process kills the drone almost immediately, while those that are not given the opportunity to mate are driven away from the hive or stung and killed before the onset of winter.1 The workers are the sterile females who fill all other roles in honeybee society — from maids to caretakers, construction workers to security guards, and even foragers.
When the adult bee emerges from her cell, her first job is that of a maid. The worker cleans the wax cells in which the queen lays her eggs and where food is eventually stored. With age, her role transitions into that of a caretaker, tending for the young larvae of the hive. As her secreting glands mature, her career morphs yet again into that of a construction worker building the cells of the hive. Approximately two weeks into her adult honeybee life, the worker serves as a security guard protecting the hive from intruders including ants, mice, and other bees. The last and perhaps most dangerous job that the adult worker has is that of a forager. It is during this stage that humans have the greatest likelihood of interacting with bees. The foragers busily collect nectar (used for making honey and is a source of energy) and pollen (source of protein) from flowering plants.2
This organisms’ obvious division of labor is certainly interesting and complex, but what truly secures their position as the coolest insect is their ability to dance. One of the amazing adaptations that these foragers possess is their ability to communicate through their “waggle dance.” While my waggle dance often occurs as a result of a great song being played on the radio, Karl von Frisch showed that the honeybee’s waggle dance is all about relaying information to other honeybees about the location and distance to a food source.3
A typical honeybee waggle dance consists of a series of circular, figure-eight, movements in a particular direction (counter-clockwise and clockwise), according to the position of the sun on the vertical comb surface. Ultimately, the speed and angle of the waggle dance tell other foragers the direction, flight distance, and richness of the pollen and nectar. For example, if the food source lies in the exact direction of the sun, she will waggle straight upwards; if the food lies, say, 40 degrees to the left of the imaginary line to the sun, she will angle upwards 40 degrees to the left of vertical. Interestingly, the “duration of her waggling runs is directly linked to the flight distance from the hive to the food source, with (for many bee subspecies) every extra 75 milliseconds of waggling adding roughly another 100 meters to the distance.”1
While I personally have always had a fascination and respect for honeybees, my hope is that after reading this posting, you too can appreciate the complexity of the honeybee’s behavior. Next time you see a honeybee visiting a flower, perhaps you will recall the intricate waggle dance that the honeybee performed, or the progression of jobs this bee transitioned through to become a forager. Hopefully, we can ALL agree that the honeybee is a far more complex and interesting insect than just an insect that can sting.
Learn more about Group for the East End and its environmental education programs at www.GroupfortheEastEnd.org.
1. Arnett, R.H. and Javques, R.L. (1981). Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Insects. New York. Simon & Schuster Inc.
2. Michigan Entomological Society. The Honeybee Waggle Dance: An Active Participation, Role Playing Game. 1990. [2012 October 15]. Available at: http://insects.ummz.lsa.umich.edu/MES/notes/entnote22.html
3. Norris, Paul. The Honeybee Waggle Dance – Is it a Language? 2011 [2012 October 15]. Available at: http://animalwise.org/2011/08/25/the-honeybee-waggle-dance-–-is-it-a-language/.