Bees are constantly on the search for new sources of food, and need to communicate with others in their hive in order to best exploit new resources when they are found. Most species of the insect tend to be fairly secretive when they inform others members of their hive of the locations of bountiful flowers. Broadcasting news of valuable sources of food could inform competing insects where to find sustenance, reducing the quantity that could otherwise be collected by the insects.

Certain species of bees in Brazil have the opposite strategy - instead of "whispering" the locations of food sources, they "shout" the news to others, using pheromones. Biologists believe this behavior may serve as warning to other species that bees are staking a claim to the flowers, and will vigorously defend their territory from invaders.

"It's a signal with honest aspects and the possibility of lies. It tells nestmates where to find good food and hints at a larger occupying force," James Nieh, a professor of biology at UC San Diego who oversaw the research, said.

Elinor Lichtenberg, formerly a doctoral student of Nieh, led the research into communication methods used by bees. She is now at Washington State University.

Research centered on several species of stingless bees that compete for identical food sources. These included Trigona hyalinata and Trigona spinipes varieties. Each gives off distinct chemical pheromones that can be detected by each type of the insect. When enough members of one species are located in an area, the other variety of bee avoids the locale.

Traditional ideas of biology suggest louder animals made themselves targets of predation. When an insect or other animal draws too much attention, it can attract the attention of predators. However, Lichtenberg was able to show that an obvious presence can also frighten off potential hunters - and competitors for resources.

After one species of bee "capture" an area, other species could challenge their dominance of the food source by others. Such an act would require the challenging group to gather members and fight an aggressive defender. Researchers don't see this kind of behavior happening often in the wild. Lichtenberg and her team suggest it may not be worth the effort and potential losses that such a fight could entail. Instead, a group of bees denied access to one food source moves on to other locations.

Movement of bee populations, driven in part by pheromone signals, could affect the pollination of flowers and crops around the world.

Study of bee communication and how signals could serve as a warning to competitors was published in the journal Current Biology.

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