by Whit Gibbons

September 24, 2017

Honeybees are making a comeback. The two hives I monitor produced enough honey this summer to fill a dozen quart jars. Professional beekeepers in the region, who gather much more honey than that, smile politely at my modest harvest. A few years ago, though, they were not smiling, because of an invasive parasite known as the varroa mite.

First discovered in Java about a century ago, varroa mites were found on U.S. honeybees in the 1980s. For years the bees’ trajectory was downhill. Mites were killing entire bee colonies, causing noticeable declines throughout the country. Thanks to scientific research focused on the problem and the commercial sale of products that kill the mites, honeybees are holding their own as beekeepers practice proper hive management.

Because of in-depth research by behavioral scientists and geneticists, more is known scientifically about honeybees than almost any other insect. Especially intriguing are the colonial attributes of honeybees, in which the workers, all females, defend their colony, tend to the developing young and even regulate the temperature of the hive. Because of their honey-making abilities, honeybees have been introduced on every warm continent.

Honeybees have been the focus of behavioral studies by entomologists for decades. One fascinating discovery was that a bee returning to the hive after locating a rich supply of pollen or nectar performs the waggle dance. The messenger bee twirls around inside the hive to tell other bees where a newly discovered food source is. When Karl von Frisch described "the language of the bees" in the early 1900s, some scientists understandably thought he was delusional. In 1973, he was awarded a Nobel Prize, vindicating his claims that bees could communicate with each other quite well.

The function originally ascribed to the dance of the bees was that the returning bee conveyed to other bees (the recruits) the direction and distance of the new food source from the hive. Some investigators challenged this interpretation, proposing that recruits attending the dance were not decoding it at all but were merely picking up food source odors clinging to the dancing bee. The recruits then flew out of the hive and searched for the food by tracking down the odors borne on the wind and then homing in on the source. Everyone accepted that the bees used the dance information but exactly how it was used remained in dispute.

A group of British scientists tested the effectiveness of the waggle dance as a navigational guide by placing tiny harmonic transponders on recruits as they left the hive in search of a designated food source. The investigators had set up an artificial bee feeder station east of the hive and tracked the actual flight paths of recruits that left the hive to find it. Signals from the transponders were detected by radar so that the journey could be mapped. They then moved other recruits southwest of the hive before release.

Most recruits released at the hive flew unerringly to the immediate vicinity of the feeder, but few located it, presumably because the artificial feeder had no detectable scent. These results provided strong support for the hypothesis that the waggle dance communicates distance and direction, but the target is finally located by other cues, such as smell, that would be present in natural food sources. Additional support for the hypothesis was provided by the flight paths of the recruits released from the southwestern location. The radar map showed that these followed the same compass direction and went the same distance as those leaving the hive, but ended up completely in the wrong place, too far west and too far south.

If you want to learn more about honeybees and monitor a hive of your own, look into some of the outstanding educational programs offered by beekeeper associations in your area. They must be pretty good programs if I was able to put three gallons of honey in the cupboard.

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