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Honeybees have a complex communication system. Between buzzes and body movements, they can direct hive mates to food sources, signal danger, and prepare for swarming – all indicators of colony health. And today, researchers are listening in.
Scientists based in Germany – with collaborators in China and Norway – have developed a way to monitor the electrostatic signals that bees give off. Basically, their wax-covered bodies charge up with electrostatic energy due to friction when flying, very similar to how rubbing your hair can make it stand on end. That energy then gets emitted through communications.
We were thrilled by the potential of directly accessing the social communication of bees with our method. For the first time we can ask the bees themselves whether their colony is in a healthy condition or whether they suffer from unfavorable environmental conditions including those caused by humans.”
Dr. Randolf Menzel, Free University of Berlin
The paper, recently published in the open access journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, likens honeybee colonies to a canary in a coal mine. Bees are usually among the first species to be affected by pollutants such as insecticides, and weakened communications may indicate their damaging consequences. Such evidence may point to possible harm to other wildlife and ecosystems in a means which is quicker and cheaper than other procedures.
Menzel and his colleagues worked with 30 beekeepers across Germany over a period of five decades. They placed sensors and a central recording apparatus inside and out a specially designed hive, and tracked the honeybees’ electrostatic field (ESF) data.
They were especially interested in what is known as the”waggle dance,” a sophisticated messaging system where honeybees walk in a figure-eight pattern, then”waggle” back and forth through the stretched part of the intersection. This bee ballet communicates flight directions and distance. “Other bees follow the dancing bee, read the message of the dancer, and apply the information about direction and distance into an attractive food source in their outbound flights,” says Menzel.
The primary purpose of the research study was to gauge the feasibility of their recording system, which did indeed work, although Menzel notes that scaling up their system could be challenging, and”to find meaningful knowledge about the impact of pesticides and health conditions of bees at a larger area, we will have to use many devices across that region.”
Still, the researchers learned more about hive communication, and discovered exactly what Menzel described as”unexpected phenomena.” For instance, they discovered that bees play waggle dances at night as well as during the day, which insecticides used for treatment against pest mites had a negative influence on honeybees’ communication. They also discovered that ESF signals were emitted in preparation of swarming, and that their strength did not depend on environmental conditions such as humidity and UV radiation.
Menzel claims that their system collected a large number of data, and they need further studies to improve and finetune interpretation. “So far we’ve just begun to apply machine learning algorithms to quantify and separate the electrostatic field signals.”
In the future though, it is possible that eavesdropping on bees may offer rich and important information beyond the local pollen hotspot. Their communications may be crucial in understanding – and protecting – whole ecosystems.