ARE AMAZING INSECTS
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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