What can two types of honey bees contribute to humanity? Their language is helping researchers develop a universal distance-direction calibration tool that identifies their foraging location.
Why Humans Need Bees
Humans owe a part of their food security to these tiny hard workers. The honey bees, for instance, are responsible for 80 percent of the flowering of crops that comprise one-third of the produce consumed in the United States.
Plants such as cherries, apples, broccoli, cranberries, and watermelons depend on the bees' pollination. Bees are also the primary source of honey, another produce now valued at over $300 million.
The number of bees, however, is dwindling due to threats such as viruses and insecticides. While some experts are working on genetically modified bees, others are trying to identify their foraging spots for more efficient feeding of the pollinators.
Decoding the Waggle Dance
Animals communicate in many different ways. The honey bees talk via a waggle dance, where they form eight-figure movements.
Virginia Tech researchers, led by couple Roger Schürch and Margaret Couvillon, wanted to decrypt what it means with the help of a foundational concept and a calibration tool.
The basic principle they used came from ethnologist Karl von Frisch. According to him, the angle of the bee's body with respect to its vertical indicates the forage direction. The duration of the dance reveals the distance of their source of food.
The duo wanted to improve this idea through their calibration tool that looked better into the movements of the individual bees rather than the averages. This way, they can identify even minor or subtle alterations in their movements. For months, they tracked A. mellifera while in Sussex, UK.
They Communicate The Same Way
Later, they moved to Virginia Tech, where they brought their calibration tool and enhanced it further by studying another bee subspecies called A. mellifera ligustica. They chose 85 bees from three different hives, marked them, and monitored their movements.
They also accounted for noise or dance variations among bees that visited the same location. The collected data were then compared with the information from their previous study and calibration.
The result: they may be different bees, but they can still understand one another.
"While there were differences among populations in how they communicate, it doesn't matter from the bees' perspective. We cannot tell them apart in terms of how they translate this information. 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," said Schürch.
The job isn't done, but the team believes their calibration tools can help many researchers do similar work.
It can function as a codex that identifies their preferred forage location and periods to collect their food. The data can then be helpful in improving the propagation and preservation of the world's honey bees.
The research is now published in Animal Behaviour.