Eavesdropping on Bees Reveals State of the Environment

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Researchers have translated the “conversations” honeybees have with each other, to the point that scientists can now eavesdrop on such communications to learn from bee wisdom, a study finds.

Honeybees, via their waggle dances, share detailed information about the environment, so scientists may now monitor wide sections of a given landscape without even breaking a sweat. Details about the research are published in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology.

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“In the past two decades, the European Union has spent €41 billion ($56.17 billion) on agri-environment schemes, which aim to improve the rural landscape health and are required for all EU-member states,” co-author Margaret Couvillon of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex said in a press release.

“However, there is little evidence evaluating these schemes,” she continued. “Our work uses a novel source of data — the honeybee, an organism that itself can benefit from a healthy rural landscape — to evaluate not only the environment, but also the schemes used to manage that environment.”

She, project leader Francis Ratnieks and their colleagues had a major bee breakthrough. After two years of recording honeybee waggle dances in three separate hives, the researchers managed to decode the dances. That is like learning bee speak!

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This and prior studies determined that the angle of honeybee dances conveys information about the direction of resources. The duration of the dances, on the other hand, conveys distance.

Using a simple protractor and timer, scientists can then measure the aforementioned honeybee dance characteristics to figure out the info shared by the bees.

This research team amazingly eavesdropped on 5,484 honeybee dances in the U.K. The bees were buzzing about flowers, of course, and lack thereof in certain areas. Surprisingly, some organic farming region “schemes” (as they’re referred to per Couvillon) fell into the latter category. The scientists suspect that regular mowing in these areas, initially to discourage certain plants from growing in the plots, might leave few wildflowers for bees.

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The study proves that honeybees can help researchers to monitor large land areas and provide information relevant to better environmental management.

“Imagine the time, manpower, and cost to survey such an area on foot—to monitor nectar sources for quality and quantity of production, to count the number of other flower-visiting insects to account for competition, and then to do this over and over for two foraging years,” Couvillon explained.

“Instead, we have let the honeybees do the hard work of surveying the landscape and integrating all relevant costs and then providing, through their dance communication, this biologically relevant information about landscape quality.”

Photo: Honeybees doing a waggle dance. Credit: Roger Schürch

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