Communication and Perception
Apis mellifera communication is based on chemical signals, and most of their communication and perception behaviors are centered around scent and taste. The members of the hive colony are bound chemically to each other. Each hive has a unique chemical signature that hivemates use to recognize each other and detect bees from other colonies.
Within the hive, bees are in constant chemical communication with each other. Workers feed and groom each other, as well as larvae, drones, and the queen. In the process they pass on pheromones, chemical signals that indicate information about the health of the queen and the state of the colony.
Chemicals not only help with detecting the right signature of hives but also with foraging. Honeybees use scent to locate flowers from a distance. When a successful forager returns to the hive, it passes the scent of the flowers to its nest mates, to help them find the same patch of flowers.
Bees also use chemicals to signal outside the hive. When a worker stings something, her stinger releases an alarm pheromone that causes other bees to become agitated, and helps them locate the enemy.
Thought it's always dark in the hive, vision is important to honeybees outside. They can see other animals, and recognize flowers. The eyes of Apis species can detect ultraviolet light wavelengths that are beyond the visible spectrum. This allows them to locate the sun on cloudy days, and see markings on flowers that are only visible in ultraviolet light. One portion of honeybee's eyes is sensitive to polarized light, and they use this to navigate.
Workers and queens can hear vibrations. New queens call to each other and workers when they first emerge. Workers hear the vibrations of the waggle dances made by returning foragers.
Apis species have a particularly notable form of communication called "dancing." Foragers that have located an abundant supply of food do a dance to communicate the location of the patch to other foragers. A "round dance" indicates food within about 300 meters of the hive, and only communicates the presence of the flowers, not the direction, though workers will also get the scent from the food the forager has brought back. The more complicated "waggle dance" indicates the direction and distance of food further away, using the location of the sun and the bee's memory of the distance it flew to return to the hive. Symbolic communication is quite unusual among invertebrates, and these honeybee "dances" have been intensively studied. (Breed, Butler, and Stiller, 1985; Milne and Milne, 2000; Reinhard, Srinivasan, and Zhang, 2004; Roat and Landim, 2008; Sammataro and Avitabile, 1998; Sandoz, Hammer, and Menzel, 2002; Sherman and Visscher, 2002)
Communication Channels: visual; tactile; acoustic; chemical
Other Communication Modes: pheromones; scent marks; vibrations
Perception Channels: visual; ultraviolet; polarized light; tactile; acoustic; chemical
- Milne, M., L. Milne. 2000. National Audubon Society: Field Guide To Insects and Spiders. New York, Canada: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc..
- Sandoz, C., M. Hammer, R. Menzel. 2002. Side specificity of olfactory learning in the honeybee: US input side. Learning and Memory, 9: 337-348.
- Reinhard, J., M. Srinivasan, S. Zhang. 2004. Scent-triggered navigation in honeybees. Nature, 427: 411.
- Sherman, G., K. Visscher. 2002. Honeybee colonies achieve fitness through dancing. Nature, 419: 920-922.
- Breed, M., L. Butler, T. Stiller. 1985. Kin discrimination by worker honey bees in genetically mixed groups. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 82/9: 3058-3061.
- Sammataro, D., A. Avitabile. 1998. The Beekeeper's Handbook, 3rd edition. Ithaca, New York, USA: Comstock Publishing Associates.