Asian honeybees actually have the ability to warn their peers when some kind of danger lies ahead, a study has found. They do so by sending certain buzzing "stop signal" vibrations and headbutting them.
The researchers from the University of California, San Diego and the Chinese Academy of Sciences observed that the bees typically do their waggle dance, which is moving in a certain figure of eight, to give its peers the direction when searching for food, pollen, shelter or a new nest site.
However, when they sense danger via sight or smell, the bees start vibrating vigorously and headbutt other bees in order to warn them about the lurking danger. The headbutts are specifically designed to restrain the waggle dance and call off the search.
What is more interesting is that not only do these bees warn their fellow companions about the danger, but the study suggests that the bees produce varying degrees of vibrational pulses or "stop signals" depending on the kind of danger that lies ahead.
For example, if a large predator is around, the vibrational frequency will be higher. If the threat is particularly close to the nest, a long vibrating pulse is sent across to caution the other bees to stay inside the hive and not to venture out. Hence, depending on the size of the threat and the proximity to the nest, accordingly the vibrational pulses were higher or longer.
The researchers were unable to comprehend or make sense of these signals for a long time. The catch being that the bees do not react or respond to these threat signals immediately. They do not stop the waggle dance straight away when these signals are received.
They instead first assess the information received and gauge its intensity. If the vibrational message is sent by more than one bee, it authenticates the message, thereby increasing their chances to heed the warning and stay wary and careful.
Head researcher, James Nieh, a professor of Biology at the UC San Diego said that this is one of the first instances demonstrated by insects of such sophisticated inhibitory signaling.
Up until now, only vertebrates, like humans and monkeys, have been known to use such intelligent form of communication. This exceptional and highly sophisticated demonstration by the bees could be considered as the first possible communication system of its kind observed among insects.
The results of this interesting study have been published in the PLOS Biology journal.